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The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) is the second film I’ve seen by Jacques Audiard. I’ve also watched his later effort A Prophet (2009), which is quite simply outstanding. While the two films deal with similar sorts of criminal violence, the director’s remake of James Toback’s Fingers (1978) should be seen as more than just a prelude to A Prophet: it’s a terrific picture in its own right, a complex character study of the piano playing real estate broker Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) which uses sound in sophisticated ways.

Tom’s love of music is handled with a delicacy that throws it into relief against the darker day-to-day tasks of his job. We see him struggle to balance the growing desire for something better (set in motion by the prospect of a successful audition) with the often violent demands of his job and his aging father, who seeks retribution against a Russian mobster. The same hands that carry a bag of rats or punch a squatter in the face also stroke the piano keys late at night and caress Aline (Aure Atika), his associate’s wife, in a stolen moment. His hands become a familiar and important image as they are often the focus of the frame. Sometimes they’re cut and occasionally they’re bleeding but most often they wriggle, frustrated, playing imaginary notes on an imaginary piano.

The tension between Tom’s life and his wishes is expressed through the music itself, principally in the modulation of Bach’s Toccata in E minor. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) comes to mind after hearing the opening section a few times: Bach’s piece becomes for Tom, like the titular conversation for Harry (Gene Hackman), not only a cause of his anger or happiness, but also an indicator of his mood. We’re reminded that directors can use mimetic music (sound in the filmic reality) to reveal, as well as influence, the psychological states of the characters. It is clear, though, that the role of such music is difficult to pinpoint when it functions both digetically and mimetically. Nonetheless, in the beginning, we hear Tom trip repeatedly over the opening few bars, trying excitedly to play the piece. While he does get better, we notice, along with his tutor Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), that his rhythm is out: he rushes through the notes and get frustrated, shouting, slamming his fists and stomping his feet. Eventually, he plays confidently and feels ready to make his dream a reality. So, then, it’s a sad disappointment when the nerves of real life overpower his fingers in the audition and he fails to get past those opening bars. Frustrated and embarrassed, he quickly leaves the room and, with space to breathe outside, puts on his headphones.

This moment is only one example of a general pattern in which other forms of music interrupt the key piece. The Bach in Tom’s head is repeatedly challenged by the bass of electronica or the voice of Kele (fronting Bloc Party) that spills from his mp3 player. The device, which he uses earlier in the film in an attempt to block out the world, confining his ears and confirming his passion, at this climactic moment of failure becomes a way of forgetting, rather than solidifying, his personal musical desires. We see with hindsight, though, that his headphones do not act as a barrier to the world at all: instead they help Tom to streamline himself against the demands of his job and his society. The rhythm of his life – the interaction between his classical dreams and his contemporary reality – is revealed in the orchestration of the music.

On the note of pianos, here’s a fun article about mad pianists and here’s Bach’s piece being performed by Clara Haskil:

It sounds odd to consider the sound involved in a silent film. Cinemas, though, did not simply begin making music after the production of The Jazz Singer (1927): they were noisy places and films were noisy things from the beginning. It is likely, for example, that a piano accompanied the first significant presentation of moving pictures before an audience (generally considered to be Auguste and Louis Lumière’s screening in Paris in 1895). There is an inevitable gap between image and sound in this sort of production because the notes are added after and do not originate from the same source as the picture. In a sense, the music that accompanies these films can be considered diegetic (a term which comes from the Greek ‘to narrate’) because it is used to guide the viewer’s response. Indeed, we are aware of a similar effect caused by any film score but the use of what I term mimetic elements of the soundtrack, for example sound effects or dialogue, is not possible for these pictures. Such noises are mimetic (from the Greek ‘to copy’) because they only recreate the recorded reality in film. Is it fair to say, then, that we expect to feel the seam between the film and sound in so-called silent films, to feel a gap between what is occurring on-screen and the music that accompanies it?

An odd thing happened, when I was watching Dr. Mabuse (1922), which was counterpointed later, when I saw Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961): for a moment in Mabuse the diegetic notes of a piano become (inadvertently) mimetic, while in Marienbad expected aural mimesis is (purposefully) frustrated. There is a scene in Mabuse in which a pianist is playing. It is, if I remember correctly, in a gambling hall. The score lends a feeling of lightness and jollity to the action. When Lang cuts, however, to a medium close shot of the pianist, seated and playing, the notes mimic perfectly his hand movements: for a time, in a sense, we hear what the characters do. The implications of this slip are unnerving: for a few seconds the viewer is left to decide the tone of the piece for herself, as the music reveals it is not itself an interpretative keynote, suggesting how to view the scene, but instead only another level of the presentation of a gambling hall. I had to rewind the DVD to make sure I’d not made a mistake.

In Marienbad, in contrast, there is a score of organ music that is oppressive in its relentlessness. In one particular scene, again a medium close shot of a band playing, the instruments are oddly silent. The droning organ continues regardless and makes the image of the playing band members, apparently unaware of their own silence, all the more disturbing. I remember, for some reason, sensing my stomach drop, when I first encountered this shot, and a feeling of isolation began to grow. I suppose it is an odd experience when one’s own senses fail to line up, when what we see is not what we hear.

In Rope (1948), Hitchcock demonstrates that he’s an experimental, as well as a successful, filmmaker. Shot in a series of reel-long takes almost invisibly joined together, the picture confirms that there’s more than one way to tell a story with film.

Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope’s End (1929 American title) is the source for this picture, and Rope itself does feel theatrical: the one-set setting is made more explicit by Hitchcock’s method of filming. The experiment, which the director believes “didn’t work out”, is an attempt to create an, on the whole, unedited appearance. The camera is not static: it follows characters around the flat and moves in for close ups when desired. While he occassionally uses unmasked cuts, Hitchcock joins most of his reels together by tracking into objects (for example, the back of a man’s jacket), which he then allows to fill the frame.

Despite aiming at an appearance of organic continuity, with the camera seemingly following the impromptu actions of the characters, Rope was a highly orchestrated affair. The actors were choreographed, taking movement cues from other characters’ lines; the crew had to move props and roll the walls of the set (which were on wheels) silently out of the path of the large Technicolor camera. The camera’s movements were also carefully planned to achieve thrilling shots: for example, the opening close up of David (Dick Hogan) being strangled is later counterpointed by a similar close up of the same rope holding together a bundle of books.

In the film’s balance between the level of in camera editing and apparent lack of post production, Rope‘s experimental nature is reminiscent of early filmmaking techniques. While pictures such as Augustine and Louis Lumière’s Baby’s Breakfast and The Card Players (both 1895) seem to be cases of starting the camera and letting it run on until the 50 ft reel ran out, both exhibit a level of narrative shape which is achieved through in camera editing, through decisions, for example, about when to begin filming, whether to film only part of an event and when to stop.

Such craft is evident in their 1895 picture Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Here’s a video of the film from youtube:

The single wide shot is positioned to allow a full view of the factory gates and to catch workers leaving both camera left and camera right. There is a clear start, when the gates open, and an apparently clear finish, when the last worker leaves. A young man and a dog run back into frame in the last few seconds, against the general movement of people. I wonder if this shock is a purposeful comic touch or an accident achieved by leaving the camera running a shade too long?

Hitchcock’s later film is far more complex both in terms of narrative shape and its in camera editing. Nonetheless it is telling that, in the classical Hollywood age which, generally speaking, championed a fairly secure set of editing rules, perfecting the invisible cut, Hithcock experimented by turning (consciously or not) back towards the more formative early years of cinema, in which directors had to explore different ways of telling stories, creating rules and trends as they progressed.

There is a formal struggle in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) between unflinching realism and filmic self-consciousness. Much has been made of the picture’s sociological importance but an awareness of its cultural implications should not cloud an appreciation of its sophisticated construction.

The film presents a day in the life of three youths in an unidentified Parisian slum. It begins with black-and-white documentary footage of real riots and starts, as a result, with a feel of historical authenticity. The cinematographic choice to shoot in a similar black-and-white look seems to bind the film proper to the stock footage with which it opens: on the one hand, the fiction of La Haine is allowed the authority of history. The story begins the day after a riot in which a police inspector’s gun has gone missing: on the other hand, then, history fills in narrative blanks, as the tumult recorded in the stock footage acts as a surrogate for the fictional riot that we are not allowed to see.

The narrative is full of similar holes, as well as tedious stories, dead-ends and unfunny jokes: it appears as uneven as life. Take, for example, when, sat killing time in a park, a young boy tells Vinz (Vincent Cassel) a story about a celebrity who’s been set up for the television show Candid Camera. The tale crescendos as the celebrity tries “to act cool” but, as he gets more uneasy, inevitably “starts ranting at [a] guy”. Finally, the story climaxes only in a bathetic petering out: “They start fighting and the Candid Camera guys have to break it up.” “Then what?” “That’s all.” “Who was the celebrity?” “Dunno, but he was real famous. I don’t remember.” Later, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) ruins a potentially funny joke by over-telling it. He begins, “Heard the one about the nun?” He recounts how a drunken man, leaving a bar, comes across a nun in a long black cape. He starts beating her up and, after about five minutes, finally says “You’re not so tough, Batman!” The comedy is defused when Saïd exclaims, after a brief pause, “He thought the nun was Batman!” Vinz rounds off the deadening by saying, “I heard it was a rabbi.”

The film ends with what feels like a true to life stroke, when it is Vinz and not a policeman that is shot. Throughout the film we are allowed to see Vinz enacting (in his head) the desire to shoot a “pig”. His fantasy is to avenge the death of his friend Abdel Ichaha who dies at the hands of police brutality. He shouts at Hubert (Hubert Koundé) that he’s learnt from the streets: “Turn the other cheek: you’re a dead motherfucker!” When, though, he is handed a skinhead to kill (one apparently worthy of death, as Hubert antagonises him, screaming, “There are good cops. But the only good skinhead is a dead skinhead!”), he finds he cannot. He knows he’s not a gangster. Neither does he die a glamorous death: he is shot only because a gun goes off by accident. It is a realistically unflattering end to a head that was filled with fantasies.

But his blood runs on the pavement black not red. While the black-and-white cinematography may appear to lend a sense of authenticity to the picture, it instead creates a distance between the film and real-life and places it in the realm of self-conscious cinema. There are references to colour throughout the picture that jolt the viewer and make her aware of its absence. Vinz, talking about the riots of the previous night, says, “It was war against the pigs, in living colour!” If colour is a sign of life, then the decision to shoot La Haine in black-and-white separates it from reality. In a shop, buying peppers for his grandma, Vinz does not have enough money for the green ones, only the red, which she hates. As the viewer sees Vinz and the shopkeeper argue over the peppers, all uniformly grey, she begins to feel that, if everything were in colour, if there was some hope, everything would be fine. The world of La Haine becomes painfully black and white; the absence of colour is felt. Read the rest of this entry »