Ludovic Bernard’s French drama is charmless, predictable, and profoundly unconvincing.
Cinema history is filled to bursting with inspiring, heart-warming underdog stories, in which marginalised people battle seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve the success they deserve, and director Ludovic Bernard clearly sees In Her Hands – about a teenage piano prodigy from a tough Paris banlieue – in that tradition. Unfortunately, his film is charmless, predictable, and profoundly unconvincing, its protagonist, Mathieu Malinski (Jules Benchetrit), is not only poorly written and acted, but unsympathetic too. Bernard worked on the Taken sequels (as first assistant director), and there are certainly times you wish Liam Neeson would turn up and give oafish Mathieu a good hard kick in the pants.
We first see him playing a communal piano quite beautifully at the Gare du Nord train station. Spotting a couple of gendarmes, Mathieu runs, Bach giving way to a cack-handed rip-off of Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life on the soundtrack. The song (‘Whatever I Want’ by Les Hommes Terribles) and the breathless pursuit are clearly meant to conjure memories of Renton at the beginning of Trainspotting, in a bid to establish Mathieu’s credentials as an edgy outsider or charismatic criminal. Alas, the tune’s ersatz quality tells you much of what you need to know about the rest of the film.
It turns out Mathieu’s piano skills have been spotted by Pierre (the Matrix movies’ Lambert Wilson), who works at the fancy National Conservatory of Music. He believes the boy might be a musical genius and later bails him out of police custody, when he is involved in the attempted burglary of a house. Mathieu is handed six months’ community service but, due to Pierre’s intervention, gets to see out his sentence at the Conservatory, while being shown how to channel his inner Mozart by no-nonsense tutor, La Comtesse (Kristin Scott Thomas on stern-posh-lady autopilot). Pierre shocks his fusty bosses by entering the lad in a prestigious international piano competition that the Conservatory hasn’t won in – gasp! – three years.
There are still too few films chronicling the lives of the dispossessed and underprivileged, but the Paris banlieue on which Mathieu lives is so hilariously inauthentic it makes A Touch of Cloth’s ‘The Rundowne Estate’ look like something from La Haine (on which, ironically, Bernard worked). An abandoned shopping trolley lies overturned on the ground, some multi-ethnic teenagers zip about on motorcycles, while generic hip-hop thuds monotonously away in the background. Mathieu’s two best pals are, of course, minor-league wrong ’uns, and he’s the son of a single mother. It’s a box-ticking exercise featuring every poverty-porn cliché imaginable and only served to remind me of infinitely better films that took great care to get this stuff right, like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014) and Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year.
Any half-decent screenwriter will tell you that conflict is the essence of dramatic storytelling, but friction between characters has to be believable. Here, it really isn’t – Mathieu gets angry at the drop of a hat and seems to spend the entire film stomping around like a trainee Gila monster. I’m not even sure what he is meant to be angry about exactly; his mum couldn’t afford piano lessons when he was a kid but now – years later – he finally has the chance to hone his talent and follow his dream at a renowned place of learning FOR FREE, with a doting father-figure/mentor and brilliant teacher. Presumably, if he won the lottery, he’d tear the ticket in half and jump up and down on it in abject fury.
Not that Mathieu’s inner rage isn’t a perfectly reasonable subject for dramatic exploration – it’s made clear that, for the boy to reach his full potential, he needs to focus, work out how to control his demons, and pour all those heightened feelings into the music he plays (“The emotion must be apt and deep,” as La Comtesse tells him). But because the writing and Benchetrit’s acting aren’t particularly good, there are times when it seems that anger is the only emotion this kid has. It makes for a very one-dimensional central character, whose tiresome bouts of teenage angst wouldn’t look out of place in a mediocre TV sitcom.
The film is cluttered with superfluous subplots. Mathieu picks up an injury (acute tendinitis) that looks set to scupper his chances in the piano competition, but it clears up very quickly and is hardly mentioned again. Pierre’s job at the Conservatory is under threat from a “fashionable modern composer” named Delaunay (Alexandre Brik), but that story goes nowhere, while problems in Pierre’s marriage to the bitter Mathilde (Elsa Lepoivre), and their son’s death from leukaemia, are only wheeled out as plot devices to add fuel to Mathieu’s arc. There are things that don’t make sense either; Pierre’s bosses secretly work with another talented pianist – Sébastien (Gaspard Meier-Chaurand) – who they want as back-up for the competition in case something happens to Mathieu. But this is presented as an outrageous idea, leading to more shouting and stomping, rather than a perfectly sensible belt-and-braces approach.
Bernard clearly knows his classical music and only a total philistine could fail to be impressed by the film’s effective use of Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Lizst. It’s elsewhere he comes a cropper; the generic hip-hop and Iggy rip-off are bad enough but clunky needle drops abound too. Etta James’ classic At Last (actually written for the 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade) is clearly a song about someone who has experienced a number of romantic failures before finally being swept off their feet by a true soulmate, not the soundtrack to two horny teenagers having their first snog. While the decision to include The Pixies’ ‘Where is My Mind?’ to illustrate Mathieu’s confused emotional state couldn’t be more clumsily on the nose if it tried.
There are moments when In Her Hands does get it right, but they are few and far between. The best scene comes early on when Mathieu, his friend Driss (Samen Télésphore Teunou), and another character (so uninteresting I can’t even be bothered to look up his name) break into a posh house. Mathieu finds a piano and, even though he knows it’s likely to alert the homeowners, starts to play. He is soon so lost in the music he doesn’t notice the arrival of the police until it’s too late.
That short sequence tells you more about Mathieu and what music means to him than anything else here; how it takes him out of himself, heals him, makes his life worth living. As Pierre later tells him: “You play because you can’t not play – it’s vital.” Sadly, any desire on director Bernard’s part to really explore this angle is swiftly sidelined because Mathieu has to get in training for the big competition, as if he were Rocky or the Karate Kid, rather than a supremely talented young musician struggling to discover who he really is and what he really wants.
The film’s final act is so predictable it may as well have been written by an algorithm, as all of Mathieu’s silly tantrums conspire to sink him. He falls out with girlfriend Anna (Girlhood‘s Karidja Touré in a nothing role), burns his bridges with Pierre, and stalks off back to his dodgy mates. Will something significant happen to make Mathieu realise who and what is important in his life, so he can fulfil his destiny in the nick of time and provide us with a feelgood finale? Take a wild guess.
In Her Hands is released in the UK on July 10
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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