by Jeff Meyers
Given Frances intense (and often annoying) national pride, the idea of a French filmmaker remaking an American movie must give Parisian cineastes heart palpitations. Flirting with cultural treason, Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, A Self-Made Hero) delivers a stylishly chilly reimagination of James Tobacks 1978 film Fingers. Starring a young Harvey Keitel as a dreamy thug who aspires to be a concert pianist, Tobacks first, and arguably best, film embraced unsettling violence with a grim sense of humor.
Abandoning much of Fingers style and theme, Audiard has created a work that is darker, more ambiguous and, well, French. A moody character study, Beat confronts the fading ideals of anti-hero Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris), a twentysomething lowlife. Releasing rats into low-rent apartments, cutting off utilities and occasionally brandishing baseball bats, he and his loan shark cronies (Gilles Cohen and Jonathan Zaccaï) put together shady real estate deals. Ambitious, bad-tempered and sullen, he follows in the footsteps of his slumlord father, occasionally acting as his enforcer or debt collector.
A chance encounter with his deceased mothers agent (she was a concert pianist) reignites Toms interest in music. Though he hasnt played in years, the piano becomes a desperate bid to leave behind his seedy and violent life. He hires the beautiful but exacting Vietnamese pianist Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham) to coach him for his big audition.
Audiard gets good mileage out of Toms brutish and explosive anger and Lins graceful sense of discipline. Toms torturous attempts to conquer the piano carry as much drama as his violent run-ins with criminals. His yearning to be transformed by music softens his dark, brooding edges and reluctantly we begin to care about him.
Tom is his own worst enemy. He carries on an affair with his crooked partners wife and decides to intervene in his fathers bitter feud with a vicious Russian mobster. Though indecision and poor choices repeatedly derail his salvation, its clear he doesnt like who he is any more than we do. Hes a man in search of both his heart and his soul. As a result, his quest for peace and maturity generates far more suspense than you might expect.
Audiards film, lovingly shot, bristles with an intimate energy that sweeps the viewer along. He keeps the sentimentality in check and delivers an unsettling ending that, at first glance, seems unsatisfying. Whether or not Toms fate qualifies as a happy ending depends on your viewpoint; its as contradictory as Tom himself. In the end, Audiard leaves it up to the audience to put it into perspective. How very French.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.