Reversing the usual direction of such trans-Atlantic trades, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” is a French-language remake of an American film. But Jacques Audiard’s film is totally unlike the periodic Hollywood attempt to take a recent Gallic crowd-pleaser and transform it into an English-language copy, usually to catastrophic effect. The picture he has chosen to revisit is a seventies cult flick, “Fingers,” James Toback’s debut about an obsessive, violence-prone New York man (Harvey Kietel) torn between his longing to become a classical concert pianist and his occasional employment as a collector by his loan-shark father. Toback’s controversial film has visceral power and a flashy style, but it’s hardly what one would choose as a model if your interest was in crafting a popular success rather than a success d’estime. Audiard’s refashioning instead reflects a genuine love of the original and a serious effort to remold it for a contemporary, and especially European, sensibility. The closest analogue isn’t to West Coast travesties of French originals, but to the Gallic pictures made from American pulp novels and short stories during the sixties and seventies, under the strong influence of film noir (like Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” and Chabrol’s “Le Boucher,” and even Clement’s “Purple Noon”).
And happily the result is equally good. Audiard and his co-screenwriter Tonino Benaquista have made substantial–and mostly beneficial–alterations to the original, both in style and in narrative. In the latter respect they’ve given the anti-hero, here called Tom and played with a sort of ferret-like intensity by Romain Duris, a seedy “occupation”–he, like his father before him, is involved is shady real-estate deals, which often require him and his partners Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccai) and Sami (Gilles Cohen) to physically force squatters out of properties in order to take possession of them. They’ve also jettisoned–with good reason– the original’s subplot about the protagonist’s near-hallucinatory longing for spaced-out streetwalker Tisa Farrow, which brings him into contact with brutal black superstud Jim Brown. But to replace it, they’ve also made a brilliant addition–a lengthy episode involving Tom’s hiring of a Vietnamese pianist (Linh-Dan Pham) to help him prepare for his audition with his mother’s old concert promoter. This invention strains credulity a bit–it means that the thirty-year old man is suddenly “coming back” to the instrument after years of ignoring it, rather than (like Kietel in the original) having maintained his skill without interruption–but it allows for a visual and aural depiction of the war raging within him, between the spasmodic outbursts of his first efforts to play for her and the gradual tempering of his performance as her gentle but firm instruction takes hold, thereby making clearer than Toback was able to the issue of “nature vs. nurture” that’s at the heart of the story (no pun intended). And by making the instructor a foreigner who can’t communicate with Tom in French, the script accentuates his inability to articulate what his real identity is, either in words or actions. It also provides some softening in the story’s still-violent ending, which still sees Tom dealing with the mobster (now a Russian) responsible for his father’s murder but also, now, crossing over to his better nature, even if only half-way. All these changes are actually for the better. On the other hand, adding an elaborate subplot about Tom’s affair with Aline (Aure Atika), Fabrice’s wife, made possible by her husband’s own infidelities, is a distraction that could have been dispensed with.
In sum, though, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” succeeds as both a homage to its quirky model and as an engrossing film in its own right. Duris shows considerable charisma in capturing the edgy uncertainty of a man trapped between two worlds, and Niels Arestrup makes his father an appropriately over-the-hill sleazeball without going to the overwrought extremes of Michael V. Gazzo in the original. Pham is extraordinarily effective in a role that requires her to make most of its points through gestures and expression rather than dialogue (and her transformation in the closing scenes is remarkable). The rest of the cast are solid if unremarkable, but the cinematography of Stephane Fontaine deserves special credit for mirroring Tom’s almost feral character and sense of isolation so well. The moody score by Alexandre Desplat, who’s quickly emerging as one of the most imaginative of today’s film composers, is a plus too, though musically it’s the reiteration of the same Bach Toccata that Toback used as the protagonist’s knuckle-busting audition piece that’s most compelling. It not only makes the link to “Fingers” that much stronger, but reminds us that the Johann Sebastian’s keyboard music is something that ties together the American director’s output, playing a prominent part as it does both in his first picture and in his most recent one, “When Will I Be Loved” (in which the recordings by Glenn Gould were an almost constant motif). Bravo!