A FRENCH adaptation of writer-director James Toback's 1978 film "Fingers," about a man torn between thug life and classical music, filmmaker Jacques Audiard's "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" plays like a piece of mediocre music, gorgeously rendered.
Like the earlier film starring Harvey Keitel, "Beat" is, at its core, the story of a young man (Romain Duris) within whom two sharply divided personalities wrestle. By day -- and sometimes by night -- Thomas Seyr, like his sleazy father (Niels Arestrup), works in "real estate." That is to say, he intimidates squatters out of apartment buildings his bosses are hoping to sell by, say, releasing rats and is more likely to collect back rent from one of his father's recalcitrant tenants by means of a knife to the throat than with a sternly worded letter. In his down time, Thomas, like his late mother, a concert pianist, is immersed in the pleasures of music, living in an apartment with an elaborate sound system and drifting though the streets of Paris to the "electro" beat of his ever-present headphones.
But it isn't until Thomas runs into his mother's former agent (Sandy Whitelaw), who invites the one-time teen piano prodigy to audition for him, that the war between our hero's dual natures truly comes to a head. Hiring a pretty Asian immigrant keyboard whiz (Linh Dan Pham) to whip himself back into shape -- after all, it's been 10 years since he has played seriously -- Thomas suddenly finds not just the demands of his day job, but its soul-deadening character to be starkly at odds with the creation of art.
It is, in short, a fairly preposterous (yet oddly predictable) premise. Which path -- that of righteousness and beauty or that of crime and squalor -- will Thomas choose? Frankly, the only thing that made me care much about the outcome, or provided the least bit of surprise, was Duris's passionate performance. I will, at the same time, admit that it took some doing for me to get past the fact that the actor, so genial and likable in 1997's "Gadjo Dilo" and 2002's "L'Auberge Espagnole," was playing such a punk here. Thomas is a nasty piece of work: calling his father's fiancee (Emmanuelle Devos) a whore; lying to his business partner's wife (Aure Atika) to keep her from finding out that her husband has been cheating on her; and then sleeping with her himself.
Once I was able to set that expectation aside, however -- or rather, to let it inform the character -- Duris's portrayal of Thomas only became richer. It is, after all, a function of Duris's charisma that we want to like Thomas. In a way, we have to want to like the guy, even as we have to despise what he has done with his life. Otherwise, the character's psychological and the film's ultimate resolution of the conflict between his paternal and his maternal influences doesn't matter.
My problem with the movie then is not that it doesn't matter but that it feels simultaneously under-composed and over-played. Despite its star's ability to bring Thomas's dilemma to life, I never really doubted which side would take preeminence. Note after note, it's a song that's performed with more emotion than it ever deserves.
THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED (Unrated, 107 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, violence, sensuality and nudity. In French with subtitles. At Cinema Arts Theatre and Landmark's E Street Cinema.