The conflicted young protagonist of Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped uses his fingers in two dramatically different ways. When he extends them, he plays the piano rather well. But when he rolls them into a ball, they become fists of enforcement for his graying father, who owns some Paris commercial buildings occupied by tenants who occasionally need a bit of persuading to pay their rent.
Thomas (Romain Duris) also has a legitimate profession, more or less. With two business partners -- one of whom cheats daily on his wife, with Thomas as his alibi -- he buys slum apartments, occupied by legal squatters, that they usually have to clear out with noise, clubs and sacks full of rats. Tired of his squalid life, Thomas enters into revivifying piano lessons with a young Chinese music teacher who speaks no English, and he arranges an audition with a manager who was fond of his mother, herself a concert pianist, and who admired Thomas' nascent talent a decade earlier.
Although this story may not sound familiar, Audiard, who made the grungy art-house hit Read My Lips, is adapting and re-imagining Fingers, the 1978 debut film by the ultra-quirky indie director James Toback (The Pick-Up Artist, Black and White). The earlier film, which starred Harvey Keitel, was low-budget gritty and, with its interracial sex and hints of homosexuality, somewhat startling in its time. Audiard's version pushes no cultural buttons and comes by its grit in a more contemporary stylized way -- with lots of tight twitchy close-ups, and a routine darkness that makes you want to give up at times on actually seeing what's happening.
For the first reel of The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Duris does his best Belmondo, and Audiard does his best Godard. But soon the movie, like Thomas, settles into an interesting schizophrenia: At times it's an absorbing drama, especially in the tender, troubled relationship between Thomas and his increasingly dependent father; and then it's a satisfying melodrama that Audiard keeps just inside the boundaries of efficacy. He owes a lot to Duris, an imperfectly handsome actor, with an affable menace, whose modulated performance explodes once or twice to good effect.
Because it seems so unlikely that any young virtuoso would find himself living such extremely different lives, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is somewhat difficult to absorb as anything but a movie. Toback, who attended Harvard, probably saw his original story as a metaphor for his outlaw life as a filmmaker. Audiard's script is fast-paced and colloquial, so you won't quite get its full effect unless you're fluent in French. There's romance, too, when Thomas finally tells his partner's wife that he loves her, and Audiard's bittersweet ending is something of a surprise. All in all he's made a solid and serious movie that probably didn't need to be made. In French, with subtitles.