Friday, 7 July 2006

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté) (2005)

I'll beat you hard if you skip that note!

In 1978, American indie director James Toback made Fingers, a tale about a gangster torn between a life of crime and the musical world. What Jacques Audiard has done is not a remake at all, but a very loose adaptation that takes the central idea of a man with divided loyalties to two different worlds. Right from the beginning of The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Audiard signals his desire to radically make the story his own vision, to dissuade viewers from thinking of the word 'remake'.

In the film’s opening shot, an unnamed man tells the listener in the couch of the struggles he’s had with his father, of how their tortured relationship became both infinitely more and less bearable after the father begins his slow decline to senility, and death. The man tells the tale of how he had to care for his father slowly and grimly, alternating between calm measured tones, nervous agitation, and resigned depression. This man will never appear again, but his almost-monologue sets the tone, themes and issues for the rest of the film: how ties and relationships between fathers and sons change over time; the love – sometimes painful, sometimes masochistic, always loving – sons have for their fathers; emotions and conflicts all internalised into a roiling state of mind, illuminated by gritty and realistic camera style that eschews the phantasmagoria of quick jump cuts, and employs just one long shot in every scene.

The listener on the couch is one Thomas Seyr, or Tom, as he is known to all. But who is Tom’s father, and how are the two bound to each other? At 28 years of age, Tom has taken after Robert’s profession, that of the small-time real estate agent. Near the bottom of the real estate chain, Tom and Robert live in a shady, even thuggish world, planting rats in apartments, forcibly evicting squatters from abandoned public housing projects, persuading or even tricking landlords to sell their property. It’s not exactly the mafia, but this is the kind of life that Tom has found himself drifting into, under the tutelage of Robert, since the death of his pianist mother.

Tom may be at the top of his game, but his father is beginning a slow decline, with clients and tenants suddenly defaulting on payments. What is it exactly that bonds the son to his father, despite the emotional abuse and blackmail? Is it Seyr pere’s charismatic charm (after all, he did snag Tom’s mother)? Or the inevitability of a son’s unconditional love for his father, regardless of what he does? There comes, almost as an accident, a possible reprieve for Tom, as he runs into his mother’s old concert manager, a man who believes Tom may have the potential of a concert pianist, and encourages him to prepare for a placement audition.

The meat of this movie take place during Tom’s preparatory period for the audition, where the shady real estate agent slowly and never surely discovers the alternative, better, or just simply more legitimate life that his long-buried musical talent can bring. The transformation is slow and never guaranteed, the slow motion character study making the clash between the two sides of Tom’s soul all the more stark and painful, and the pull between middle class respectability (his mother and the piano representing the same maternal-sensual order) and his semi-criminal lower class roots (his father and business colleagues representing the same paternal-practical order).

It is very easy to ruin a film based on these themes just by playing up Tom’s emotions, presenting him as an out-and-out musical genius, or playing up his torn loyalties as a form of schizophrenia. This is where Jacques Audiard’s effort is far superior to that of James Toback’s. The director’s commitment to realism - emotional, psychological, and as a mode of cinematic storytelling; his eschewing of artifice and "composition"; and use of long shots and filming entire scenes in single shots, creates a convincing exploration of Tom’s tortured heart.

First published at incinemas on 27 July 2006

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