Over a two-year period in the mid-'50s, American expatriate Jules Dassin made the gritty caper classic Rififi, Jean-Pierre Melville delivered the gamy life-of-a-gambler sketch Bob Le Flambeur, Jacques Becker directed his fatalistic crime study Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, and Henri-Georges Clouzot helmed the creepy, witty murder story Diabolique. It was the heyday of the French genre film. Accomplished directors worked on movies that were rooted in pulps, but were expressly concerned with documenting human behavior. A few years later, the New Wave rushed in, feeding off the low-rent energy of B-movies while subverting their technique to tell elliptical love stories. Since that initial New Wave surge, true French genre films have gotten fewer and paler, with only the occasional Claude Chabrol or Luc Besson production to keep the tradition alive.
To that list, add the work of Jacques Audiard, who's dedicated three of his four features to tales of underworld types trying to shake up their lives. The third film in the cycle is The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a loose adaptation of James Toback's 1978 film Fingers, about a concert-level pianist who cracks heads for his loan-shark father. Romain Duris plays Audiard's version of the sensitive thug, who spends his days blasting rock 'n' roll and pushing delinquent debtors around, and his nights haunting performance halls. He struts like a cock in front of his victims, but faces Parisian aesthetes with more open-faced humility. Duris also dallies with two women: the married Aure Atika, who drives him mad with desire, and the talented musician Linh Dan Pham, who helps him prepare for an audition.
From its plot to its look, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is designed to express how it feels to be torn between two opposing worlds and passions. The film opens with an anecdote about a man who took care of his dying father, and then had a son of his own; throughout, Audiard and his screenwriting collaborator Tonino Benacquista return to the idea of responsibilities that pile up and keep a man from doing what he really loves. Duris is afraid of losing his father, but equally afraid of losing whatever gifts still reside in his increasingly bruised, fragile hands. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is as tense and taut as any crime saga, but the stakes are more personal. Every shaky close-up and whip-pan conveys a sense of time running out.