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Helmer bows cult remake

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PARIS — A bemused-looking Jacques Audiard has just gotten off the telephone with James Toback.

The rail-thin Parisian and super-sized New Yorker have been talking film — specifically, Audiard’s new pic “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” a remake of Toback’s 1978 cult pic “Fingers.”

So what did Toback think of Audiard’s version? “Well, I think he liked it,” Audiard tells Variety. “It was a little hard to tell. You know James is incredibly talkative. He doesn’t stop asking questions, each of which last about five minutes. He then proceeds to answer those questions himself.”

It’s clearly time for a pipe, and Audiard, crowned France’s pipe smoker of the year in 1997, unhurriedly measures out his tobacco. He goes about his filmmaking in similar fashion, averaging about a pic every three years: “The Beat That My Heart skipped” is his fourth as helmer/co-writer since 1994’s “See How They Fall,” an adaptation of Teri White’s novel “Triangle.”

In France, the 52-year-old Audiard’s name is now being mentioned in the same breath as Gallic suspense pros such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Henri-Georges Clouzot. Earlier pics “Read My Lips” and “A Self-Made Hero” won several Cesars, but “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” is Audiard’s first pic to have made a real impact at the French box office, breaking the 1 million ticket barrier.

Pic was released in New York and Los Angeles on July 2 and has since expanded its run. Wellspring acquired “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” for a low-six-figure sum after being encouraged by the performance of “Read My Lips,” which grossed $2 million when Magnolia released it in the U.S. in July 2002.

“The critics have been really positive about Audiard’s new film. The New Yorker gave it a great review,” says Wellspring head of acquisitions Marie-Therese Guirgis. “We’ve also had positive feedback from some back-to-back screenings we’ve been holding of ‘Fingers’ and ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped,’ with Toback comparing the two films afterwards.”

Audiard decided to remake “Fingers” after he was approached by producer Pascal Cocheux, who’d already done a new version of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” with French helmer Jean-Francois Richet and wanted to repeat the exercise. Audiard says the simplicity of the “Fingers” storyline attracted him to the project, which he updated with co-writer Tonino Benacquista from the original’s New York setting to present-day Paris.

“My last film, ‘Read My Lips,’ had a multilayered plot — this time I wanted to make something much simpler, less formally structured,” explains Audiard.

“The story of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” can be broken down very simply: It’s about a young hoodlum (Romain Duris) who wants to change his life for the better through music. This kind of pared-down storyline left me much freer to experiment.” The thrust of Toback’s original screenplay also gave Audiard the chance to return to one of his pet themes: what happens when a son outgrows his father.

Inevitably, this has led to questions about Jacques Audiard’s relationship with his late father Michel Audiard, who wrote over 100 screenplays. “My father never considered cinema as an art; for him, it was not something that could ever be confused with literature or music,” remembers Audiard. “I think cinema is very important. Needless to say, it was a subject of conflict between us.”

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