“The Beat That My Heart Skipped” is a cocky French remake of James Toback’s 1978 cult underworld character study “Fingers” that stands reasonably well on its own as an urgent, updated genre meditation on nurture vs. nature. Writer-director Jacques Audiard’s update on the violent moral tale of an urban go-getter torn between his father’s life as a thug and the urge to honor his mother’s memory by becoming a concert pianist adds little to the original. Nevertheless, well-made pic injected some much-needed adrenaline into a Berlin competition generally considered in need of a boost and will do solid midrange fest, arthouse and homevid biz with American auds new to the story as well as Toback disciples.
Pic successfully retools the story from 1970s New York to contempo Paris and imbues it with an appealingly muscular surface gloss. Pumping music through ever-present silver headphones, the confident Tom (Romain Duris) works with Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccai) and Sami (Gilles Cohen) on ever-changing real estate deals of questionable legality. In his spare time, Tom collects debts for his dissipated father, Robert (Niels Arestrup).
The tightly coiled young man has an impressive talent for persuasive violence he seems barely able to control. Obviously uncomfortable with this aspect of his personality, a chance meeting with the promoter who worked with his concert pianist mother inspires Tom to renew long-dormant aspirations to follow in her footsteps.
As the day of a crucial audition approaches, Tom juggles intense lessons under the watchful eye of Vietnamese-Chinese instructor Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), a passionate affair with Fabrice’s wife Aline (Aure Atika) and an increasingly violent conflict between Robert and the Russian mobster Minskov (Anton Yakovlev).
Fans of Toback’s long-elusive yet highly regarded original, which starred Harvey Keitel and Michael V. Gazzo as son and father, will have a high time comparing the numerous updates, similarities and differences that range from the headphones that replace Keitel’s enormous boom box to the hideous yellow sports jacket favored by dad and the inevitable absence of American football star Jim Brown as a cryptic crime lord. Yet Audiard and novelist co-scripter Tonino Benacquista, who copped France’s screenplay Cesar for “Read My Lips,” are nearly undone by their honest ambition: Some 17 minutes longer than the occasionally aimless original, the mix of elements from “Glengarry Glen Ross” and the pruning of the father-son relationship in favor of more piano practice scenes with Miao-Lin and the whole Fabrice/Aline subplot is flab the picture doesn’t need.
Still, Duris’ charismatic perf will keep auds transfixed. With his hair-trigger temper and compulsive fingering of the air, he confidently channels Keitel’s nervous energy, but in appearance seems more akin to Robert De Niro’s explosive Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets.”
Stephane Fontaine’s nervous, claustrophobic camera serves the material well. Composer Alexandre Desplat supplements the Bach and pulsing contempo tunes with a lushly foreboding score.
Pic goes out in Gaul March 23.