In somewhat of a rush to sample directors’ styles before seeing their new features at this years Toronto International Film Festival, I threw on The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté) by Jacques Audiard last night.
Winner of the BAFTA award for Best Film in a Foreign Language, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is about Thomas (Romain Duris), a 28 year old man with little ambition in life and job that requires a rough and tumble persona. After getting a glimpse of his profession that requires psychologically and physically harming residents of apartments who refuse to pay up the money they owe their landlords, it’s clear that this is a profession no one would do willingly – at least the sincere Thomas.
On his way to another job with his friend/co-worker Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccaï), Thomas spots someone outside of a concert hall that he recognizes while driving to the destination. He parks his car immediately and approaches the elderly man – it’s Mr. Fox (Sandy Whitelaw) the piano teacher that taught him and his mother. They briefly reflect on old times and how much both of them miss Thomas’ mother before Mr. Fox asks Thomas if he’d like to audition for him one day. Thomas says he hasn’t played for competition in almost a decade, Mr. Fox hands him a card and tells him to set an appointment and they go their separate ways.
Now with a new sense of ambition and meaning to his uneventful existence, he begins to reengage in piano vehemently – spending almost every waking moment playing for himself or for his prudent piano tooter Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), who recently won a two year scholarship for her piano playing and who also doesn’t know any French. Somehow the two are able to communicate without understanding each other – the music they play and their speech tones speaking for them. All of this is utilized beautifully by Jacques Audiard who approaches the profoundness of music as more than something that can cause one to be more enlightened or at ease with themselves, but also as a universal tongue – drawing Thomas’ rapid obsession with the piano in more philosophical light.
Life seems to have turned around for the once fatigued man – he may not be close to stability, but there has been a fiery passion reignited in his soul. Anxious, focused and content, Thomas’ murky view of the world has now blossomed into an array of beautiful architecture. The only thing bringing him down are the people around him.
This is where we meet his father Robert (Niels Arestrup) – an undiscerning thug who is the reason for Thomas’ occupation; he runs the money taking business. The contrast between father and son in the film is lucid. Even though they share similarities (ie. valuing life the same) they also hold strong differences, especially in the professional and romantic world. In the professional world, Robert is reckless and blunt – like a locomotive headed for an unbreakable wall you can sense the inevitable, while Thomas is intelligent, sneaky and risks nothing when he goes in for a job. If the danger rate is high, he finds away around the danger or he stops planning and moves on. Romantically, Robert is looking for cheap thrills and high-octane sexual encounters while his son is aimed more at a fulfilling relationship complete wish passion. However inane his father may be, Thomas always looks after him with the best of his ability – even if he appears unappreciative.
You’d expect a film about music to have a great soundtrack – of course, Audiard delivers here. An effective and contagious underscore that both highlights the shining positives of Thomas’ life and the grim negatives is provided by Alexandre Desplait. Blending an elective selection of electric and classic compositions, Audiard entices his viewers by using music in yet another poignant manner – this time to better show the layers and personality of Thomas. Whether it be falling into ease with a thumping and sizzling electronica or becoming uneasy and irritable to the most calming classic compositions, its made abundantly clear that Thomas is a man with a troubling weight perched upon his aspiration. It it hinted towards the audience that all of this is caused by the tragedy of his mother’s untimely death and the stress of readmitting his mother’s last name into the pianist field with the utmost dignity. None of this is spoken, but is subtly gestured through Thomas’ mannerisms while listening to old cassettes of his mother’s piano playing.
With looking after his father like he’s a child and working endlessly to play a flawless sonata by Bach for Mr. Fox, Thomas is a frantic man. This is where the character study lies – we see him grow from an agitated street hood into an inspired and perhaps eccentric artist. The dialogue may not have a lot to offer intellectually and some circumstances may fall under the improbable category, but nothing completely unrealistic occurs. For the majority of the feature, this is a wonderful examination of the world crashing down on you in a eustressful way. It’s never messy about what it wants to accomplish and is even cleanlier in explaining Thomas’ personality and focus.
Although, far from flawless with little misdeeds leaving stains across the canvas that is the film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is seldom impaired and just a tad exhausting in little bits. Clever editing allows for humor and the small romantic elements will be cause for lavish responses from otherwise reluctant viewers. It’s repeated, but never berated that the beat that Thomas’ heart skipped was one he wished he maintained earlier on in his life.
An intensive character study that divulges into the way the streets work against you and how arduous it is to to be rid of hindering surroundings. The subtext in this feature is invaluable, as is the masculine, yet frail performance by Romain Duris. [9/10]