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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: