The Beat That My Heart Skipped
directed by Jacques Audiard
Wellspring Media

Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped creates edge-of-the-seat psychological tension in a shadowy Paris. When it was over, I overheard a woman complaining to her companion, “Why can’t Americans make films like that?”

Actually, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a remake of an American film, the 1970s cult classic Fingers, an independent production whose brutal vulgarity would repel Audiard fans. After I saw The Beat That My Heart Skipped, I watched Fingers for the first time with a growing sense of revulsion and fascination that the medium of film can uniquely induce. Audiard’s is a far superior film: the plot gaps, caricatures, and psychological exaggeration of Fingers are gone from the new version. But one cannot begin to appreciate its cinematic artistry until it is seen beside Fingers.

Fingers, James Toback’s first and only significant film, starred a young Harvey Keitel, Jim Brown (the great fullback turned actor), and Tisa Farrow (Mia Farrow’s little-known sister). Umberto Eco said that a cult classic is a composite of an entire genre that offers audiences a glimpse of the sublime in the banal. Eco had Casablanca in mind, and Fingers is no Casablanca, but it has appealed to a small, diverse group of cineastes and directors. I do not know if Spike Lee has acknowledged Toback’s film, but the influence of Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli (with his loud portable tape deck) on Radio Raheem—the character in Do the Right Thing with the boom box—seems obvious.

Toback filmed on a shoestring budget financed entirely by Fabergé, makers of Brut, “the cologne for men” of the ’70s. The backers got cold feet when they saw the rushes; they were worried this crude and politically incorrect film would ruin their image. As Toback tells it, Cary Grant, a member of the Fabergé board, convinced them to stay the course. The film certainly did not add luster to their corporate image. Pauline Kael called the film “a howl of ambition.” “You get the feeling,” Kael wrote, “that at least two-thirds of it is still locked up in the writer-director’s head.” Even Audiard, who has a proprietary interest, describes Fingers as “the tail end of the comet of seventies American independent cinema.”

Toback was teaching writing at City College of New York and struggling to get his work published when a sports magazine commissioned him to write an article about the greatest football player of the era, Jim Brown. As the story goes, Toback went to interview Brown and stayed on as a guest in his home for months. What the two men found in each other is unclear, but it was enough to create a friendship that has lasted for more than 30 years. By the time Toback directed Fingers, Jim Brown had reinvented himself as an actor, and he got a leading role in the film.

Brown’s character, Dreems, is a surrealistic element of an already-bizarre story. An ex-heavyweight-champion boxer, Dreems is a brutal and menacing pimp who is sexually irresistible to fragile and beautiful white women (enter Tisa Farrow). He is the archetype of phallic, sadistic masculinity—when Farrow’s character, Carol, and another of his women refuse to kiss each other, he bangs their heads together. Dreems is also the Oedipal father, the standard against which Jimmy measures himself as the two compete for possession of Carol.

This may seem like a heavy-handed psychoanalytic interpretation, but Toback has said that he wanted to create an “Oedipally impacted” piano player. He seems to have read every one of Freud’s essays on sexuality and worked them into his screenplay and Keitel’s overwrought character. Jimmy is a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, torn between his life as a hoodlum and his dream of becoming a concert pianist. (Audiard may have been intrigued by this juxtaposition: his previous film, Read My Lips, was a conjunction of prosaic secretarial life and criminality.) Jimmy loves and identifies with his mentally ill mother, who wants him to become a pianist like she once was. But he also loves and identifies with his loan-shark father, who wants him to work as his enforcer. One of many odd psychological aspects of the movie is that Jimmy has a child’s unalloyed bond to his father.

Like the polymorphous Freudian child, Jimmy is filled with sexual possibilities. Cruising New York’s SoHo in his oversized Cadillac convertible (everything is blatantly symbolic), he spots the mysterious Carol. Is she a prostitute? He parks and follows her into her warehouse studio (she may be a sculptress) and is about to force himself on her when he confesses that he “can’t do it” unless she wants him. After a brief pause, the obliging Carol starts forcing herself on Jimmy. This exchange culminates in one of the least convincing simulations of sexual intercourse in the history of cinema.

If Carol is not fully committed to this new relationship (she belongs to Dreems), neither is Jimmy. He preens for gay men who seem interested in him and cannot take his pedophilic eyes off a young girl in a skirt who does cartwheels for him. Despite his claim that he can’t have sex unless he is wanted, he forces himself on another young woman. And since he is “Oedipally impacted,” he later undergoes what may be the first prostate exam in a feature film. No wonder the people at Fabergé were worried.

Keitel’s Jimmy is the child of his psychotic mother, living in his own world of music, recklessly acting on his sexual impulses, friendless and oblivious to the people around him. The film’s complicated plot is centered around his aspiration to become a concert pianist, which is suddenly renewed when his mother’s former agent offers him an audition. As the film progresses, Jimmy begins to neglect his obligations in the mafia world of his father as he throws himself into mastering the difficult Bach E-minor toccata for the audition.

Not unexpectedly, the audition is a disaster. Even more traumatic is his mother’s response—she seems to put a curse on him. Still worse, while he was off practicing Bach, mafia hit men killed his father. Seeking revenge, Jimmy attacks the mafia boss who ordered his father’s death. Jimmy saves himself in the struggle that ensues by squeezing the man’s genitals with all the might of his pianist’s hand. The man passes out, Jimmy grabs his gun, and, yes, shoots the man’s eyes out. When we last see Jimmy—who has failed his father, been cursed by his mother, and been rejected by Carol for the sexually superior Dreems—he is in a catatonic stupor, crouching naked in his apartment.

Freud, it has been said, was Hollywood’s late-20th-century idol, and Toback’s film must be one of the most obscene expressions of that worship. It was no surprise to learn that when Audiard screened the film for Tonino Benacquista, who wrote the new screenplay with him, they both had second thoughts. But together they turned Toback’s vulgarized Freudian nightmare into a compelling thriller. They lost the psychotic mother (now dead) and the Jim Brown sideshow, imagined their way through the Oedipal challenge to a positive resolution, and conjured up the story of a man who breaks out of the iron cage of his character.

Jacques Audiard began his film career as an editor, and his editorial skills are apparent not only in what he has done to Toback’s screenplay but also in the construction of his film. He decided to film it using whatever light was available—as a result, each scene has a somewhat different visual identity. The narrative develops in segments that ricochet back and forth between scenes of the protagonist, Thomas (Romain Duris), committing petty crimes and practicing Bach. Audiard recognized that a thug concert pianist might be difficult to believe, so he dropped the surrealist spin that Toback gave Fingers and made the film as realistic as possible. Most importantly, he made the relationship between Tom and his father much more psychologically believable.

In a chiaroscuro segment at the beginning of the film, we overhear an intimate conversation between Tom and his friend Sami (Gilles Cohen) in which Sami describes the travails of caring for his aged father, who has become helpless and incontinent. Sami confesses that the process of caretaking inspires moments of surprising love for his father that he has never before experienced. These are moments that Sophocles never depicted and Freud never analyzed. Out of this confession of love comes Sami’s unexpected question to Tom, “Do you believe in God?” This apparently disconnected question serves as a nuanced introduction to a major strand of the film: what does a man owe his father? It is the Oedipal question raised to a higher moral, psychological, and religious ground. With this Audiard leads into a film in which Tom finds an answer to that question.

It is striking how many details of the French screenplay are faithful to Toback’s original yet manage to be subtle and engaging rather than shocking and off-putting. Romain Duris’s performance is key. Both Keitel and Duris must convince the audience that they are capable of being a vicious thug or a concert pianist. But Keitel’s frenetic Jimmy shuts us out, making it impossible to empathize with him in his struggle. Duris’s Tom, though equally nerve wracked, is allowed to grow up as a character. Indeed, that is how Audiard tames and translates not only Toback’s screenplay, but also the tragedy of Oedipus. He gives us a believable narrative of redemption. And as in most redemptions, love salvages the character and saves the soul. In The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the would-be concert pianist finds a lovely Vietnamese émigré, Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), to coach him. She speaks not a word of French and he no Vietnamese. This impediment and their growing commitment to Tom’s impossible goal suggest romantic possibilities that draw the audience to them.

As in Fingers, Tom must also contend with the unreasonable demands of his father, Robert (Niels Arestrup), an aging scumbag. Robert is a corrupted and corrupting man, not a father to emulate or to love. But the killing of even such a father can impose the duty of revenge on a son, or so it is written in many traditional depictions of the human condition. Tom has the same disastrous audition and the same confrontation with the man who had his father killed. But he thwarts his Sophoclean destiny. After immobilizing the man with the same castrating grip as Jimmy in Fingers, he forsakes his filial duty of killing.

And then we see him make a loving Oedipal resolution. He marries his beautiful piano teacher and becomes her manager, arranging her concert schedule and supporting her career. It is a hopeful redemption beyond the imaginations of Sophocles, Freud, and Toback.