Shoot the Piano Player
Like the Tower of Pisa, the Cyclone at Coney Island or the La Brea tar pits, James Toback's Fingers is a landmark: unbalanced, ramshackle and gloopy but irrevocably there. It is both a location in itself and a locator, which puts into place some of the most idiosyncratic traits of 1970s American cinema.
From Five Easy Pieces, Toback lifted the figure of a keyboard-playing misfit--a character who, in the earlier film, could not live in either of the social worlds available to him, those of the intelligentsia and the working class, but who became in Fingers someone who could not live up to his models for manhood: the artist and the thug. In another act of mimicry, Toback cast Harvey Keitel as his lead, exploiting the actor's Mean Streets persona as sensitive yet explosive, thoughtful yet mobbed up--an image that Fingers exaggerated to the point of psychosis. The Golden Age of Porn gave Toback his courtship scenarios, establishing the far edge of fantasy for Fingers. The film's far edge of realism was inspired by Scorsese, Lumet, Friedkin and many others, who led the way for Toback's use of unadorned New York locations.
Toback set his borrowings into unsteady motion with a premise that only he, I admit, could have dreamed up: What if Glenn Gould were the enforcer for a New York City loan shark? The musical performances, as mimed by Keitel, were grotesque; the mob scenes, pure camp; and the sexual shenanigans, either risibly frank or frankly risible (you make the call). But because the film caught in passing so much of 1977 New York, and because half a dozen of its scenes were not just improbable but indelible, Fingers won a following that it maintains to this day.
Among its admirers is the wonderfully clever director Jacques Audiard (See How They Fall, A Self-Made Hero, Read My Lips), who with screenwriter Tonino Benacquista has now come up with a French remake titled The Beat That My Heart Skipped. It plays a game that hard-core fans of Fingers perhaps won't care for, in that it's credible and coherent. It even has a female character whose life isn't defined by her relationships with men. Yet despite such faults (from the Tobackian point of view), The Beat That My Heart Skipped succeeds in pulling you deep into the experience of a febrile character who is so determined to change his life for the better that he just might destroy everyone he knows.
Brilliantly portrayed by the slim and vulpine Romain Duris, whose built-in sneer never quite conceals the bulge of his upper teeth, Tom is a Parisian real-estate operator of the hands-on school. When he wants to develop a property, he clears out the existing tenants by releasing rats, smashing windows or breaking heads with a baseball bat--techniques that are only slightly rougher than the ones he uses in negotiating with his partners. Audiard presents Tom's career as a nocturnal chaos of murky, jumpy close-ups shot with a hand-held camera: the business world as one of the more restless circles of hell.
Tom needs steadiness--but true to his nature and milieu, he searches for it chaotically. When a chance encounter with an impresario brings back memories of his late mother, a concert pianist, Tom suddenly throws himself into preparing for an audition, despite the minor handicaps of lacking any professional experience and being at least ten years out of practice. So life-giving is his new activity that Tom soon abandons his needy father, lets down his business partners and enters into an affair that's nasty even by the standards of French adultery movies. This isn't exactly progress.
The only sign of hope is that he's now concentrating on something. The Beat stops skipping and settles down as soon as Tom starts practicing. Why have so few filmmakers, other than Audiard, dared to show what pianists really do: go over a passage again and again? In these static, repetitive and utterly compelling scenes, Tom at last has stillness forced on him, though sometimes to his comic frustration--especially in the lessons he takes with a conservatory student (Linh-Dan Pham) who speaks no French. You will notice that she is the second woman to coach Tom on the piano, and he can no more converse with her than with his dead mother.
Already this year we have seen one French remake of an independent 1970s American thriller: an inappropriately artsy and star-laden Assault on Precinct 13. That picture almost drove me into the death-of-cinema camp; whereas Audiard's film, though initiated by the same producer, reminds me that cinema has more lives than we may think. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is terrific entertainment. When compared with the original, it even suggests that movies are better than ever.