Jacques Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arrete

Thomas Seyr, the main protagonist of Jacques Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arrete (English title: The Beat that my heart skipped; New Yorker review here) calls himself a real estate agent, but is, in fact, little more than a common thug. He spends his days in a world of brutal violence coupled with easy male cameraderie that is strongly reminiscent of the early Scorsese, he listens to techno and pop music – he’s just another lowlife on the streets of Paris. Then one day a chance meeting brings back the ghost of his mother – a concert pianist – and reminds him of his own years spent playing the piano. The man he meets (his mother’s former manager) offers him a chance to audition to be a concert pianist himself, and Thomas finds himself rediscovering classical music like a wound in his heart that has lain forgotten but has never quite healed.

What follows is a finely crafted exploration of a young man’s struggle to define his own identity. Trapped between his loyalty to his friends and his love for his now decrepit father on the one hand, and the thrilling vistas of music on the other, Thomas is a soul in torment – a demon who can neither bring himself to believe absolutely in the possibility of salvation, nor deny it completely and adjust to his own private hell. As the movie progresses, Thomas finds himself drawn deeper and deeper towards the music, driven to question the realities of the life that he has taken so long for granted, more willing to explore new, different ways of finding satisfaction. But this new-found happiness of his is not without its fears – as his obsession with music increases, his work suffers and he finds himself increasingly driven to the point where he must stake all, risk everything to escape the netherworld he inhabits. Whether Thomas truly has the courage to make that leap is the chief point of suspense in the film.

What makes the movie interesting of course, is the basic premise of a man who is both an brutal beast and a pianist of refined taste (if fairly unexceptional talent). This is not a new conceit*. Truffaut exploits much the same dichotomy in Tirez sur le pianiste, though approaching it from the other side (and of course, Aznavour is a much finer pianist; just as Truffaut is a far more skillful director). And nowhere is the idea of beautiful music combined with horrific violence more powerfully depicted than in Kubrick’s classic A Clockwork Orange (based, of course, on the book by Anthony Burgess) where the old ultraviolence goes hand in hand with beautiful Ludwig van.

What makes this movie special though, is the way that Audiard explores the contradiction here – for Thomas, violence and music are not parts of the same fundamental urge (even though you could be fooled into thinking so by the way he plays the piano, at least in the beginning). This is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story – a wrestling match between the mild mannered piano player and the scruffy, indifferent villain. Throughout the movie, Thomas seems less like a master of music and more like some barbaric savage who has just discovered music on his shore and does not know quite what to do with it. You get the feeling that he is holding the music in his hands, trying to get it to work, dissolving into frustration when it doesn’t or letting his heart sing with elation when it does. There is something uncouth about Thomas’ search for redemption, and Audiard’s gritty, realistic visual style helps bring that out perfectly. As Thomas goes about his violent errands, playing air piano on tables and dashboards, trying to hold on to the music in his head, we are given a glimpse of a yearning that we can all relate to – the yearning for something finer, more beautiful than our plain, sordid lives (what was it Shelley said: “The desire of the moth for the star / Of the night, for the morrow / this devotion to something afar / From the sphere of our sorrow”)

Everything else about the movie, unfortunately, does not come up to this standard. Thomas’s tormented relationship with his father is acted with wonderful skill, but is, in the end, rather obvious; his love affair with a friend’s wife seems fairly gratuitious; his interaction with his chinese piano teacher (who doesn’t speak a word of French, while he, obviously doesn’t speak Chinese) feels trite and disingenuous. This is a film built around the single monumental struggle of Thomas the brute against Thomas the piano player – everything else is just noise.

Overall, De battre mon coeur s’est arrete is a movie well worth watching – if only for the incredible urge to listen to Chopin and Bach that you leave the theatre with.

*The movie itself is a remake of the 1978 Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel, so in some sense, nothing here is really new.

P.S. Don’t miss the shot of Horowitz’s hands moving on the piano keyboard in slow motion.