Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 15, 2005 1:39 pm 
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NIELS ARESTRUP AND ROMAIN DURIS IN DE BATTRE MON CŒUR S'EST ARRÊTÉ

A movie that never skips a beat

The premise is far-fetched but simple. Approaching thirty, Tom Seyre (Romain Duris) is working hard as an enforcer and violent rent collector for his dad, a scumbag real estate tycoon (Niels Arestrup). But a chance encounter starts him thinking he might be the talented concert pianist he once dreamed of, in the image of his late mother. Without stopping his usual work he tries to prepare an audition.

Based on a flop more admired in France than the US, James Toback's 70's Harvey Keitel vehicle about a violent would-be pianist, Fingers, this compulsively watchable, thrillingly accomplished new movie by Jacques Audiard (De Battre mon cœur s'est arrêté, still showing in Paris as it opens here) echoes his previous compellingly offbeat Read My Lips in grafting together two separate moral universes. Read My Lips depicted the odd alliance of a firecracker ex-con (Vincent Cassel) and a mild-mannered but angry hearing-impaired office worker (Emmanuelle Devos). It was an intriguing piece -- but seems low energy in retrospect compared to this. Audiard has made a powerful actors' movie in which Duris blooms, a powerful actor now, playing in effect both the Cassel and the Devos parts and acting out the resulting implosion of violence and frustrated artistic passion with astonishing zest. It's hard to believe he was the tame college student narrator of Klapich's L'Auberge espagnole three years ago.

Duris as Tom is good-looking but vaguely burnt-out, his eyes a bit crazy, his hair neatly coifed, his jaw firm, has mouth a smiling snarl. The camera is on that square jaw every minute. Uniformed in boots, smart pants, tie and trim leather jacket, he's an elegant young hoodlum who can switch to a dark suit for a real estate hearing or audition, or wipe the blood off his cuff to enter a café or concert hall. He's angry all the time but brings vibrant energy to both of his conflicting lives. Tom finds a beautiful longhaired young master pianist called Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham) to coach him in piano. These encounters with the keyboard he approaches like a prize fighter going at a punching bag. If he's an artist it's the hairy-chested, coiled, macho kind. How can you teach anybody pianistic excellence? The impossibility of the process is signaled by the teacher's speaking no French. She harangues Tom in Vietnamese, or just says in English over and over, "again" Or "no." Or "no smoking allowed." A cup of tea in the kitchen at end of session. Tom goes at the same piece over and over, a Bach Toccata. This relationship is an "oasis of calm" in Tom's otherwise loca vida -- the contrasts in such a piece as this are telegraphed without much subtlety -- but the unconventionality of the pair helps the scenes to avoid cliché. And the intensity is just as focused in these quiet moments.

There are other strong relationships. Tom isn't isolated; he works with partners, one of whom uses him to hide his two-timing from his wife. Arestrup, who looks like a French version of late Brando, is superb as the blowsy, burnt out father, a big sensualist, an irresistible presence, always smoking drinking and eating, soft but nasty, irritating but impossible for Tom not to love and protect. Tom pursues Minskov (Anton Yakovlev), a Russian Mafioso his dad has tangled with, and winds up sleeping with Minskov's French girlfriend as well as somebody else's wife. Every encounter he has is reckless and intense. Duris doesn't fail us in any of this. Emmanuelle Devos is his dad's new girlfriend, whom Tom first calls a whore and rejects and then wants to hire on to calm things on the home front. Where's it all going to end? Despite all that's going on, as one French critic said, "there's no fat" in this picture. The pushes and pulls of the hero's dilemma make for fabulously kinetic editing and the action never goes soft. A final sequel resolves things. Some say it's milder than the American version, but that's overlooking the visceral punch of the action throughout. The dialogue underlines that just as in Read My Lips, people aren't communicating too well. It may be music is all that links them.

The shortcomings of such a movie are its simplifications. The crooked real estate life like the classical pianist life can be no more than impressionistically dabbed in. And there's an occasional danger that Romain Duris -- who studied piano for months with his pianist sister for the keyboard sequences -- may be trying too hard sometimes. Since Tom also loves electro which he listens to with big headphones in his car -- as the word is Duris himself does -- classical music maybe doesn't grab the film as wholeheartedly as it ought to. You can't expect profundity but from the sound of Fingers, this is more accomplished filmmaking. It may not have as much conviction, but this is wildly entertaining. And more than that, it's a movie where everything comes together, scenario, actors, editing. Audiard, who showed us dark secret places last time, now reveals himself a virtuoso of violence and passion.

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In his NYTimes article, "Incroyable! The French Remake a U.S. Film", Terrence Rafferty discusses the relationship between The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Fingers with Toback and Audiard.

De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté swept the Césars for 2006, though Duris did not get Best Actor.

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©Chris Knipp 2005


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