On a whim, I went to see De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté this afternoon. It's showing twenty blocks down Second Avenue, so I hopped on a bus. What is all this movie-going about? And when was the last time I saw a film more than once in the theatre? But I wasn't going to the movies; I was going to see this really remarkable film again. I couldn't wait for DVD release.
I could not remember, actually, why I had found De battre so great. I knew that I'd come away thinking that Romain Duris deserves to win a Best Actor Oscar, but that no longer told me much. I headed down Second Avenue on the understanding that I would either see through the movie, and realize that it wasn't so great after all, or know, within minutes, why it was great. And indeed, within minutes, I knew that Romain Duris is why it's great, which doesn't tell you much. Let me see what I can explain, without giving things away. First, however, I ought to say that Jacques Audiard is an extraordinarily gifted director who has, with screenwriter Tonino Benacquisto, created one of the most special films of all time. Whether he could have done it without M Duris is altogether moot.
M Duris plays Thomas Seyr, the son of a deceased concert pianist and a shady real-estate finagler. He thinks he's a pretty smart guy, leading a lucratively thuggish life clearing out developable properties by making life unpleasant for their occupants. Unlike Sami (Gilles Cohen) and Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccaï), his more-or-less partners, Tom is not married, and the film suggests that he has a very active carnal life. He often wears a tie, but his jacket is always leather, which in the occasional business setting gives him the air of someone who just arrived on a scooter. At first, his face is impassive, breaking into occasional scowls and smirks that convey a refusal to take anything or anyone very seriously. Every once in a while, however, the mask slips, and a look of genuine concern or curiosity glimmers briefly. Tom's hands are always busy, always tapping something out. The jagged camerawork of the early nighttime scenes underscores his emergent edginess. We are soon aware that this man is not content with his life at all. Waiting at a café to meet his father, Robert (Niels Arestrup), Tom taps out such a manic rhythm on the table that he seems set to explode, an impression that's deepened by the fact that we can't hear the music that he's listening to on headsets.
For the first ten or fifteen minutes, Tom is a gamin, an edgy street creature whose appeal depends entirely on the face of Romain Duris, which keeps Tom interesting while we decide whether we like him. Then something happens to change everything, opening up an aspect of Tom that we never imagined could be there. One evening, alone in his car, Tom drives by a man whom he recognizes from the past. He parks his car and pops into the lobby of a concert hall. Pushing himself forward, Tom introduces himself to the man, who turns out to be his mother's manager, Mr Fox (Sandy Whitelaw). Mr Fox not only asks Tom if he has kept up his piano playing, but, saying, "You were gifted," asks Tom to set up an audition.
One of the luxuries of a second viewing is the freedom to concentrate on how powerfully Romain Duris conveys Tom's awareness that he has jumped off a high dive into too big a pool. It is a moment that bonds Tom to us, moreover, because we're as flabbergasted as he is. Pianist? Good enough to audition for an impresario? Tom stammers his thanks and smiles, but it is clear that he has not processed what has just happened. In the very next frame, we see a shopping bag being emptied onto the floor of what is apparently Tom's apartment; from the resulting pile of cassette tapes, Tom selects one and slips it into a player. Then, as he sits down to listen to a pianist playing a Chopin Nocturne, we look over his shoulder to see the grand piano in his living room. Although few people in the audience will be unaware that De battre "tells the story" of a young man who rediscovers his interest in classical music, the attentive viewer will be awed by manner in which the matter is introduced. The Tom that we have known up to his encounter with Mr Fox, we now see, was not the whole Tom at all, but a man guarding a confused sensibility. M Audiard's handling of the scene is worthy of Hitchcock.
Pretty soon, Tom is at the piano himself, playing a few tentative things. He realizes that, because he hasn't played seriously in years, he has no idea how good (or bad) he is. He approaches a conservatory professor (Emmanuel Finkiel) to be the judge, but the professor's dry, mocking questions show that Tom hasn't given a thought to the implications of playing piano at an audition. Is he planning to become a concert pianist? The professor's low opinion of Tom's chances in that line angers Tom, and he walks away, but a musician who overheard his conversation approaches him outside the hall. The musician knows an excellent pianist who will be happy to evaluate him. She turns out to be a Chinese student, Miao Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), who does not speak French. She and Tom agree to meet every afternoon at two; the evaluation has been replaced by a course of lessons.
Tom-the-pianist is a man of great temperament. There is absolutely nothing "cool" about him. He groans miserably when he can't master a phrase. He soars with elation as he wraps up a Bach fugue. He smiles more when he is with his partners, and he's genuinely perplexed when they scoff at his reclaimed passion for keyboard. Everyone, quite reasonably, convinced that he is letting a hobby get out of hand, but we know, from the demonstrative physicality of Tom's playing, that he has simply come alive. And that is all I need to tell you about the story of De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté. What follows Tom's first lesson with Miao Lin is series of alternating scenes. In the musical scenes, with their tranquil camera work (and the radiantly tranquil Miao Lin), Tom openly embodies whatever he is feeling at the moment. In the other ones, with jumpy cameras, an almost affect-less Tom is unhappy with the part of his life that isn't spent at the piano.
Tom's day job is not without its dangers, and the sense of danger mounts as the film goes along. This is not a plotted contrivance, however. Tom's father gets involved with some very unsavory characters, but the real cause of the thickening menace is our fear that Tom is not paying attention to his partners. They're dissatisfied with his lack of commitment, and we wonder what they might do to Tom. Suspense will keep first-time viewers at the edges of their seats, but it will not be missed the second time, because we watch the movie entirely within Tom's ongoing present. Suspense is replaced by surprise.
Now, about that face. You may have seen Romain Duris in Le Divorce, where he played the wildly coiffed Yves and was playful with Kate Hudson, or in L'auberge espangole, one of my favorite rueful comedies. He is charming in both, but that turns out to be because his characters are charming. I would always have been happy to see his name in a cast on the strength of those two movies. But "happy" hardly does justice to the effect that a new film starring M Duris is going to have on me from now on. I will not be happy to see his future movies; I will be compelled to see them. I understand that M Duris is a major heartthrob among the ladies, but he is not conventionally handsome. His teeth are set forward in a way that can make him look chimpish. His nose is not particularly suave. He has a very heavy beard below passable cheekbones. Almost every one of the photographs appearing in the the soundtrack CD booklet presents him as handsome, but it's a good thing that these pictures mislead. Romain Duris has one of the fastest and most expressive faces in film history. I can't, in fact, think of anybody like him, because before seeing his latest movie I didn't know that a mercurial face could make somebody into a star. I can't to see what he'll do with it.
As luck would have it, today's post brought the bande originale du film, and from the booklet I learned a few fun things. First, the heavy-duty performances of Bach, Brahms, and others were recorded by Caroline Duris, the actor's sister. She is a professional pianist, and she taught her brother how to play a few passages for the camera. For his part, M Duris is a drummer, so all that tapping has some real artistry behind it. He suggests nonetheless that Tom's "nervosité" is not a trait that he shares.
Another distinguishing feature of this fine film is its open acknowledgment of credit to James Toback's Fingers (1978), starring Harvey Keitel. (August 2005)