The Beat that My Heart Skipped is a good little character drama, but it’s easy to overlook, and it will probably be easy to forget.
Pied Piper of Paris
Thomas (Romain Duris) works in “real estate” in Paris. What he really does is plant rats and smash windows to get squatters to leave abandoned buildings so that the developers can come in and gentrify them. (There is obviously some French “squatter’s rights” law being tweaked, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is.)
Driving one night, Thomas sees his old music teacher entering a building. He stops, follows him into the concert hall, and says hello. The teacher remembers his mother, a very good pianist in her own right before she died. He invites our protagonist to play him an audition some time.
With that unexpected development, the main character’s life and the movie suddenly change course.
Thomas is ready to give up “real estate” for music, but his old job may not be ready to let him go. There is an element of organized crime to what he does, and they don’t just let people walk away. But Thomas is on the periphery, not a major player, and he’s allowed a little room to live his life.
He takes a little break from work, and even finds a teacher (Linh Dan Pham) to get him ready for his audition. She is a Chinese immigrant who speaks no French. They communicate through Italian words like “adagio,” the occasional English phrase, and plenty of body language.
Do You Know Where You’re Going?
There are many supporting characters (including Thomas’ father) and subplots. One of the more important subplots is a twisted romance. Thomas’ friend Fabrice cheats on his wife, and he uses Thomas as a recurring excuse. Thomas will come to Fabrice’s apartment, say hello to the missus, and then go out “with” Fabrice for drinks. When she figures out what’s happening, she and Thomas discover that there is a mutual spark of attraction between them.
There’s a lot going on in The Beat that My Heart Skipped, but none of it leads anywhere. Sure, we can see there should be an audition, a confrontation with Fabrice, and the mob demanding that Thomas return to work. And even though most of these things happen, there is very little closure in the story. Even the coda, which begins “two years later”, barely begins to tie up the loose ends. The movie doesn’t feel punctuated; you can never ultimately say what the film was about.
Duris’ performance seems to be of the “sleepwalking” school, where stuff happens to him, as opposed to him doing something, or even reacting to events. Strange as it sounds, this is a perfectly valid approach, and it has been used elsewhere to good effect. But ultimately it’s a style that leaves you just a little cold, even if you like the protagonist. One can like him for jumping at the chance to choose art over commerce, or for his preference for listening to electronica while preparing Bach’s Toccata in E minor. But you won’t come to know him intimately; you’ll see his behavior but not his soul.
Contrasting the distant characterization is the handheld, close-up cinematography. It can be jarring, but it can also be intimate. At times it works wonderfully, as in Thomas’ last scene with his father.
Music plays an important role in The Beat that My Heart Skipped. The original score is credited to Alexandre Desplat, whose work you may have heard in The Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Upside of Anger, or even Hostage, although the Toccata and Thomas’ electronica are just as important, if not more so.
Compared to What?
I’ve described The Beat that My Heart Skipped, but I haven’t really evaluated it. That may be because the movie doesn’t define itself clearly enough to know to measure it. What was it trying to accomplish?
It has points in its favor, but whether they are enough to make a good film is hard to say. I found substance and drama in The Beat that My Heart Skipped, but you may only see loose ends and cold detachment.