The Paris of The Beat that My Heart Skipped is edgy and dark. So is the protagonist of Jacques Audiard’s remake of James Toback’s Fingers, available on a no-frills DVD. Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) is wound tighter than a piano string, a tension that’s echoed by the jittery handheld camerawork. His unease stems from a conflict: even as his father, Robert (Niels Arestrup), expects him to follow him into a questionable career in real estate, Thomas wonders about his potential as a concert pianist like his mother. Caught between two parental role models, Thomas gradually accepts a more “feminine” influence in his life that contrasts with the male-dominated world of his father.
Thomas idolizes his mother and holds other women up to this ideal. The complexity of the mother/son relationship from Fingers, where the main character visits his emotionally disturbed mother in a mental institution, is simplified in The Beat that My Heart Skipped by her death before the start of the film. It’s difficult for anyone to compete with a dead woman who exists only in Thomas’ imagination and on audio cassettes of her piano rehearsals. Thomas resents his father, who’s still alive and discourages Thomas’ art in favor of money. Thomas’ resulting career in real estate involves releasing rats in an apartment building to flush out squatters and the occasional use of force to collect on debts owed to his father. This simply isn’t good for his piano hands.
Though he sets himself apart from the womanizing of both his father and business associate Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccaï), Thomas echoes their misogyny. He steps into Robert’s shoes to collect a debt from a Russian mobster named Minskov (Anton Yakovlev). When Minskov proves less that forthcoming, Thomas instead accosts Minskov’s girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent) once she is alone. She is scantily clad, having just gotten out of a hotel pool, and he follows her into a changing room. He leaves the door open for us to observe as he has sex with her, and so gets back at Minskov.
Thomas isn’t always so cold in his treatment of women. He attempts to comfort Fabrice’s wife Aline (Aure Atika) after she learns her husband has been cheating, filling in for Fabrice like he fills in for his father. Yet as soon as they begin their affair, he asserts possession over her, demanding to know if she loves him and if she still sleeps with her husband. As she returns from the washroom one night, he has her stop in the doorway, and she squirms uncomfortably as he gazes at her.
When it’s convenient, Thomas blames his father for the way he treats women: “I’m his son, right? Can’t expect miracles.” He attempts to buy his father’s ex-fiancée Chris (Emmanuelle Devos), whom he had previously dismissed as a “whore,” and return her to him. When he first meets Chris (Emmanuelle Devos), Thomas coldly rejects her, not wanting his father to be “taken for a ride.” Later, he tries to ensure Robert’s happiness and perhaps compensate for his desire to disentangle himself from his father’s world.
Thomas’ attitude only starts to change as he gets to know his new piano teacher, Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham). She represents a kind of salvation through art, communicating with him in a few words of broken English. She doesn’t speak French and her instructions in Vietnamese are lost on his ears. She shakes her head when he believes his playing is “good,” adding to his frustration. The difficulty of their communication mirrors the difficulty of Thomas’ transition between the world of money and the world of art. While his connection with Aline is mostly physical, his relationship with Miao Lin is more spiritual, transcending even the necessity of language.