Here’s the review I wrote for my column three years ago. Well, sort of review. I don’t really write movie reviews, I write journal entries. Yes, I only know one subject: me.
After this column appeared I asked readers if they had a copy of Fingers by James Toback, and Mark, whom I’ve never met, was kind enough to send me the DVD. And the Toback movie starring the young Harvey Keitel is wonderful.
Emotional Weather Report: TWITCHY
Bear with me. I don’t know how you feel about the movies, but I’m kind of an overenthusiastic moviegoer. Borderline nuts. When I see a movie I really like, I decide that it’s my duty to force my friends to see it. I literally drag people to the cinema, or else I give them the DVD and hound them to see it until they crack.
It’s not always a successful approach. I get so enthusiastic, I raise expectations that can’t be met. Plus I keep forgetting the disclaimer: The fact that I love it doesn’t mean it’s a great movie. It’s a visceral thing. I mean, you can watch a film and know in your head that it’s a work of art, but not feel like collaring random strangers and yelling, “You have to see this!” Other times friends don’t feel the same way about the movie, which makes me start questioning whether my friends know me at all. It’s terrifically unfair, I know, but there you have it.
Anyway, I just saw this movie and I feel compelled to force it on you. I doubt it will be shown here, and obviously I can’t provide DVDs to everyone, so here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you the pitch in under 1,000 words.
It’s called The Beat That My Heart Skipped, directed by Jacques Audiard. It’s sort of a gangster movie, but not really; the French remake of a 1978 James Toback movie called Fingers that I haven’t seen. The Beat That My Heart Skipped takes place in contemporary Paris. Not the tourism brochure Paris, but the underbelly—cruddy buildings, dark alleys, lowlife sleaze. The main character is Tom, 28, a tall, skinny guy in a black leather jacket, sneering, twitchy. Tom is all nervous energy: he looks like he’s about to leap out of his skin any moment. He’s constantly listening to music—electronica, pop—but I don’t believe it soothes him. I think it’s like having his nerves plucked.
Tom and his two business partners are slumlords. They buy dilapidated buildings, chase out the tenants with thugs, baseball bats or sacks of rats, then sell the buildings. Tom’s father was in the same racket, and the old degenerate often calls on Tom to collect debts and intimidate clients. The son loves and loathes his father in equal measure, and can’t get out of his influence.
One night Tom spots his mother’s former manager. We learn that his mother was a concert pianist and that Tom himself used to play, but he stopped after she died. When the manager asks if he still plays piano, a change comes over Tom—he unclenches like a fist. Then the manager gives him his business card and offers him an audition.
What we have here is a potentially ridiculous situation: a gangster who wants to be a pianist. It’s the stuff of comedy, except that something happens to Tom. I don’t mean he abandons the criminal life and becomes a virtuous artist, that’s just corny. I’d walk out of that movie. What happens is, Tom’s nervous energy, the violence in his nature, is diverted from busting heads to playing the piano. The same hands that smash windows start attempting Bach toccatas. I’m not saying criminals can be reformed with piano lessons—there is something called talent—but here the scuzzball and the artist share a set of fingers. Look at the bruised knuckles gliding over the keys.
So Tom is not a good guy—he knows it, you know it, but he wants his life to be more than what it is. That’s why you root for this lowlife, because don’t we all want something more than this? A lot of critics have noted that Tom is split down the middle into brute and artist. Maybe they’re right, but where exactly is this difference? Humans have terrible passions that can go either way: create or destroy, it all depends on where they emerge. Art is not a tranquil occupation. What is peaceful about wrestling with nothingness? If the process isn’t brutal, it’s just decor. Your choice: violence towards others, or violence to yourself?
So Thomas is possessed by the idea of playing again, and I don’t think it’s something he has a choice in. This isn’t the story of a man changed and redeemed by art, but of a man in whom violence and beauty are the same thing. Before he can audition he has to know if he can still play the piano. He finds himself a tutor—Miao Lin, a Vietnamese pianist newly-arrived in Paris. She speaks no French, he speaks no Vietnamese; she finds him alarming, he howls and kicks at the air after making a mistake. But he goes to her flat every afternoon at 2, and they learn to work together. Miao Lin is a lovely girl, alone and probably lonely; Tom is attractive in a predatory ferret-like way, so you start waiting for the romantic angle. And the movie is too cool to go there.
Meanwhile, Tom’s business partner is trying to cheat him, and Tom has an affair with his partner’s wife. Tom’s father gets involved with Russian mobsters, and the sight of the old man waiting for Tom at a bus stop with his nose smashed in tells us there will be trouble of the worst kind. There’s so much going on, everything could fall apart in a minute, and the real life-and-death question in all this is: Will Tom get to play?
So there, in column form, is a movie nut dragging you to the cinema, except that the movie’s not showing in any local theatres. The point is that you’ve heard of it, and if you stumble across it, you may have a vague memory of someone grabbing your collar and yelling, “You have to see this!”