The Beat That My Heart Skipped Review
A French remake of James Toback’s 1978 film Fingers starring Harvey Keitel, De Battre Mon Coeur C’est Arreté would appear to be little more than a transposition into a French location of a regular genre crime thriller about a thug with higher aspirations trying to break away from a life of crime on the mean streets of the city. Under the direction of Jacques Audiard however it becomes a compelling character study.
Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) is a small-time crook working in real estate with his colleagues, employing dubious tactics and leaning heavily on people to obtain cheap property that they can make a large profit on. Tom also helps out his father from time to time, using serious threats of violence to extract debts from uncooperative tenants. His mother, now dead, was Sonia Seyr, a famous and successful concert pianist. Thomas has inherited some of her talent, but he never took music seriously and has not kept up his skills. On a chance meeting with Mr Fox, his mother’s former manager who remembers the boy’s talent, he is invited to an audition. Tom reconsiders the direction his life has taken and prepares himself, taking lessons from a Chinese music student Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham) – but he is not exactly in the right profession with the right temperament for someone who, approaching the age of thirty, suddenly aspires to be a concert pianist.
The driving force behind the rather sensationalist plot of The Beat That My Heart Skipped is Romain Duris’ performance as Thomas Seyr – a character who is such a nervous ball of tension and energy that it is impossible not to be caught up in his infectious enthusiasm for whatever enterprise he is carrying out, whether it is his excitement at being given a chance to audition as a concert pianist or the violence that suddenly explodes from him when he is attempting to intimidate people that owe him or his father money. I must admit, I had some initial difficulty accepting Duris in this kind of hard man role, associating him with rather more smooth, refined or effeminate characters in films like L’Auberge Espagnol, Arsène Lupin, Le Divorce or 17 Fois Cécile Cassard, and being far less convincing and menacing than Vincent Cassel in a similar role in Audiard’s previous film Read My Lips. However this contradiction in his character is precisely what the film is all about, and Duris quickly erases any doubts you might have about his suitability for such a role.
The contradictions in Tom’s character are additionally well defined by the attention given to his parents. Thomas is the product of a father who may at one stage have been a legitimate businessman, but through a series of bad judgements has found that he needs to resort to riskier strategies and heavy-arm activities to keep afloat. He is superbly portrayed by Niels Arestrup, who captures the faded, worn-out man who may once have been a success and a charmer, but now looks like a sleazy has-been. Tom’s lack of faith in his father is perfectly summarised in a couple of restaurant scenes, where he is quick to judge his father’s new partner (an underused Emmanuelle Devos) as a prostitute, but realises he needs her to keep an eye on his activities. It’s this need to look after his father that keeps Tom involved in a violent and underhand lifestyle. On the other hand, the few impressions we have about his mother are of an artistic temperament that burnt-out under the demands of her profession. The contrast between the parents thus defines the contradiction between the temperament and aspirations of Tom and the journey he has to make to break away from them and find himself.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped therefore has all the characteristics and advantages of those hard-hitting US thrillers of the 1970’s, but with the added sophistication of a very French treatment and delivery. It doesn’t need to rely on the formulaic set-piece sex-scene or brutal brawl to spice up the proceedings at regular intervals – both those elements are certainly there as part of the genre movie, but they are not accorded the same sense of prurient attention they would receive in a corresponding US treatment. They are there not to keep the viewer interested, but because they define the characters in their environment and are consequently treated with the requisite attention they merit and no more. When those jarring moments do occur, the attention to detail that has gone into defining the characters – the males ones certainly, the female roles are badly underwritten - and the performances of a strong cast, makes them all the more forceful in their impact, not least of which is the film’s powerful, surprising and note-perfect conclusion.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped is released in the UK by Artificial Eye as a 2-disc Special Edition. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Artificial Eye’s transfer of the film’s visual aspect is flawless, or as good as, since I can’t see anything that it could be seriously faulted for. The transfer copes equally well with those particular grey-blues of Parisian exteriors, as much as in the warmth of the interior of bars, restaurants and nightclubs, where the majority of the scenes in the film take place. The image is perfectly clear, without being overly clinical, demonstrating just the right levels of clarity, grain and tone. The print itself is completely without flaws of any kind, showing neither scratches, marks nor dustspots, and is perfectly stable without any compression artefacts. The transfer has a black border on all sides, actually presenting the film at a ratio of about 1.81:1.
The audio is presented in a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes and there is little to choose between them, with even the surround mix being mostly front based. It does provide a more enveloping sound, though the use of rear speakers does seem a little artificial and distracting in places. Nevertheless, both mixes present the film superbly, capturing the film’s dynamics with clarity and strength.
English subtitles are provided in a white font and they are optional.
A series of interviews cover the film in reasonable detail, but strangely without the participation of any of the actors. In the Interview with Jacques Audiard (17:56) the director talks about James Toback’s film, what it means to him and how he went about adapting, scripting and casting it, discussing the films, themes, treatment and use of music. A UK Exclusive Interview with Jacques Audiard (31:35) is a little bit more in-depth, covering his theatrical and filmmaking background, but the interview is not sufficiently different from the earlier interview to be of any extra value. Tonino Benacquista (8:22), the co-writer of the film, discusses his initial reservations about Toback’s film and how he came to find elements to work with. The composer Alexandre Desplat (5:43) explains his involvement in the film.
Deleted Scenes (24:44)
34 short cuts from the final film are shown in rough-cut, non-anamorphic, timecoded form, yet fully edited, scored and sound edited. Audiard explains in the earlier interviews that most of the cut scenes were unnecessary diversions from the essence of Tom’s character – and it’s true that none of them really take the character anywhere. The line from the song that the film takes its name from – Dutronc and Lanzmann’s The Daughter of Father Christmas - can be heard in one of the deleted scenes.
Filmographies are included for Jacques Audiard, Romain Duris, Emmanuelle Devos, Linh Dan Pham and Tonino Benacquista. A hidden extra can be found on the piano in the Filmographies menu – a short 39 second clip of Duris singing a verse from the song that includes the line "…de battre mon coeur c’est arreté".
Rehearsal Footage (9:48)
This shows a selection of readings and rehearsals between the actors, with some input from the director, including one scene deleted from the script.
Hosted by Paul Ryan at the Ciné Lumière in London, Romain Duris, Linh Dan Pham and Tonino Benacquista are present at a post-screening discussion. The set-up is a little tiresome – the guests reply with long answers in French, which are subtitled here, but are then translated for the audience into English. The questions however are good, drawing out the differences and connections in the themes between De Battre… and Fingers. Benacquista does tend to over describe, analyse and explain a lot of the film, but some of the audience questions are a little more left-field.
Original Theatrical Trailer (1:58)
This is more of a teaser since it doesn’t really set up the story, but captures well the manic intensity of the film.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a class production in every respect – a thriller directed with style and rigour by one of the best French directors of genre mainstream. In recognition of both its filmmaking achievement and its popular appeal, it accordingly picked-up 8 awards at the 2006 César Awards in France, including accolades for Best Film and Best Director. The fact remains though, that De Battre Mon Coeur C’est Arreté isn’t really anything more than it appears to be – a well-made remake of a US thriller with strong performances and characterisation, certainly, but as heightened, unrealistic, exaggerated and unlikely as any strong film in the genre is likely to be. And do we really need a French remake of a US film any more than we need US remakes of French films? In any case, it’s a classy film and it gets classy treatment on DVD from Artificial Eye in their 2-disc Special Edition, with an impressive transfer and extensive extra features.