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Friday, Sept. 30, 2005

A flick that's a sound escape

De battre mon coeur s'est arrete

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: jacques Audiard
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: French (Japanese subtitles)
Opens Oct. 8
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The violence in "De battre mon coeur s'est arrete" is far removed from catharsis and titillation; it just swells and then quietly explodes, released from a dark, inner reserve that poisons the very soul of its hero, Thomas (Roman Duris).

News photo
Roman Duris (center) in "De battre mon coeur s'est arrete"

Thomas' impulse for destruction isn't heated, but as persistent and lukewarm as a low-temperature fever. With a bored sigh he strikes, and in his wake leaves broken noses, broken elbows, shattered glass, rats he has let loose in someone's apartment to terrorize them. Afterward, Thomas examines his bloody fingers, recalls the contact of flesh against his fist and his whole body seems to recoil in disgust. The next day, however, he goes through the same routine.

"De Battre mon coeur s'est arrete (The Beat That My Heart Skipped)," released in Japan as "Mayonaka no Pianist," is a remake of the 1978 movie "Mad Fingers," which starred Harvey Keitel as a young thug with a passion for piano playing. Now in 2005, director Jacques Audiard ("Read My Lips") keeps some of the unruliness and chaotic energy of the original while at the same time deftly toning down the fierce colors and burning acidity that had defined it.

The result is a work with a streamlined, modern feel -- Duris' Thomas doesn't have the same manic passion of Keitel, but his remoteness and emotional distance validates his performance in a way that a straightforward remake couldn't have done. Thomas is very much a youth of today: groomed, contained, charming when he wants to be. And every night, whatever else happens, he returns to his Parisian apartment, puts on some techno music and flips open his iBook.

Fingers that had only hours before been connecting with a man's face, now quietly tap at the keyboard. Yes, 1978 is far far away. Having said so, there's no denying the brilliance of "Beat" -- "Fingers" had been about a young gangster in search for redemption, but Audiard shifts that premise to charting the emotional maturing of a man who has issues with his parents. Thomas' dad Robert (the hulking Niels Arestrup) is a loan shark and shady real-estate agent who orders his son to do his dirty work while lingering in seedy cafes barking into his cell phone. With two of his "business partners," Thomas goes around forcefully evicting immigrant squatters, collecting debts from shop owners, wheeling and dealing and making threats. He hates his life, but his devotion to his father pushes him to keep at the job.

Meanwhile, Robert doesn't wield the same power he had in the past but refuses to acknowledge it and shows up for meetings wearing flashy yellow jackets and talking about his young "fiancee" with the brash bravado of someone 20 years younger.

Thomas' escape hatch is music and during the daytime he's got his headphones on, listening to techno and rock, and hardly bothering to join in conversations with his buddies. One day he spies a famed concert manager outside the Opera House and runs to meet him. The manager had once worked with Thomas' mother, who had been a talented concert pianist before her death. Thomas, too, trained in classical music and the manager recalls how gifted the young man had been and urges him to audition for his orchestra.

Thomas is torn, but ends up taking lessons from Chinese pianist Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham) who has just arrived in Paris and speaks no French. That doesn't stop her from being a disciplined and excellent teacher and in her company Thomas seems to bask in both the joy of piano-playing and memories of his mother. Once the lesson is over, though, he must get back to the streets and a life he finds increasingly alienating. Even a liaison with his philandering partner's lonely wife Aline (Aure Atika) can't match the peace and satisfaction gotten from playing Bach in Miao-Lin's tiny apartment. Those moments are fleeting because Robert always pulls him back into the world of cruddy deals and face-smashing. "What are you playing music for?" Robert growls. "Remember how much it made your mother miserable? Are you willing to take on that same fate?" This, without stopping to think of the misery he's dispensing to Thomas.

For the audition, Thomas chooses a Bach Toccata -- a difficult, intricate piece that relies heavily on skill and technique. (Audiard speaks in the production notes how it would have been impossible for Thomas to play anything with overtly emotional themes since Thomas himself was too emotionally immature.) Thomas understands that he can't play anything else, though the up-and-down scales and excessive finger acrobatics of the Toccata calls for a level of concentration often beyond his capacity. Pressures of the job -- and his father -- crowd his mind and weigh down his fingers, and on the very day of the audition his partners show up to remind him that they have a deal to fix.

At least by the end of the story Thomas has matured and shed some of his despair. But as the camera zooms in to his bloody knuckle, we see that despite Bach and success and true love, old habits die hard.

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