Despite the example of The Godfather, it normally falls to the French to improve on an unpromising American original. But there's a new wrinkle to Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arrété). Instead of being adapted from a humble paperback, it's a remake of a clumsy and largely forgotten movie called Fingers. Released in 1978, Fingers was the work of James Toback, an indie filmmaker who has, for three decades now, made grimy, sexually aggressive movies (Black and White, Two Girls and a Guy) with his celebrity friends for eternally small audiences.
Fingers, which starred Harvey Keitel, was the story of a small-time hoodlum who yearns to be a classical pianist--sort of an amalgamation of Mean Streets and Five Easy Pieces, two touchstones of the 1970s New Hollywood. Keitel gave a memorably constrained starring turn in Mean Streets, but once unleashed from the tight reins of Scorsese, his performance for Toback in Fingers is remarkable for its awfulness, from the very first scene in which we meet him playing Bach with ludicrous Jimi Hendrix-like grimaces. Elsewhere, the film's treatment of women and the big bad Jim Brown who likes to take on two white chicks at once marks it as a hopelessly dated relic of the 1970s. (Fans of The Sopranos may want to take a look at Fingers because it features Tony "Paulie Walnuts" Sirico and Dominic "Uncle Junior" Chianese in key supporting roles.)
There's a good chance that Jacques Audiard likes Fingers more than I do, particularly if he doesn't understand English. But it's to his enormous credit that he's developed the worthwhile elements of Fingers while wisely dispensing with the chaff of Toback's original. And when the time comes for the film's most humiliating and painful scene, Audiard virtually Xeroxes Toback's original. But because Audiard's remake is so much more compelling, a scene that is difficult enough to watch in the original becomes unbearably sad in the revision.
Audiard, whose last film was an effective thriller called Read My Lips, shows his smarts from the get-go. Where Toback introduced us to the lonely and frustrated Keitel at the expense of any social context, Audiard instead presents us with our anti-hero Tom Seyr in the middle of his thuggish universe. At first, Romain Duris' Tom seems to be an ordinary hoodlum. He smokes, wears a black leather jacket and beats people up. His enterprise, however, is a little more sophisticated than the usual protection and usury rackets. He and his cohorts operate at the bottom-feeding zone of the real estate industry, where there is money to be made on slum properties. (It's typical of the superiority of Audiard's remake that we learn some things about fair housing laws in France--like that, for example, squatters have the right to take over vacant but habitable buildings.) We see Tom and his pals attacking immigrant squatters with clubs, tearing up floorboards to make buildings uninhabitable and unleashing bags full of rats.
But despite his nasty behavior, Tom has a gentle side, courtesy of his late mother, a famous musician who hoped her son would be a great pianist. While the notion of a young man torn between high art and low living is a cliché of indie films like Fingers by independently wealthy filmmakers like Toback, Audiard manages to give this dubious conceit credibility in The Beat That My Heart Skipped. The relatively composed performance of Duris (who rather resembles Jim Carrey) is one ingredient. Another is the turn by Niels Arestrup as Tom's loan shark father. In Fingers, the role was vulgarly played by the rasping, braying Michael Gazzo; in the new film, Arestrup plays the father with wasted Old World charm, depicting a corrupted rogue who coulda been a gentleman, and could plausibly have won the heart of a classical musician.
It is Audiard's treatment of his female characters, however, that truly elevates his remake above the dross of his source material. Fingers is a flamboyantly, crotch-grabbingly macho affair. Its women are fickle bitches that need a little slapping around and indeed, Keitel forces himself on two of them, even insisting to one that she first remove her diaphragm. By contrast, in The Beat That My Heart Skipped the women are dignified and complex creatures who provide a standard for our conflicted hoodlum to live up to. There are three women in Tom's life that--in their fleeting scenes--provide us with a window into parallel, unseen worlds. In Tom's relationships with his best friend's wife, his father's mistress and his Chinese music teacher, he reveals himself as a man of some subtlety and taste, and we root for his redemption.