A tough guy finds himself in conflict with his tender, aesthetic side. We've been here more than a few times before: Golden Boy, Humoresque, James Toback's Fingers--of which the awkwardly titled The Beat That My Heart Skipped is an acknowledged remake. Not to mention the upcoming Hustle & Flow. You know the drill: chap earns his living in a low, muscular occupation but secretly yearns for a career as a musician.
In the case of Jacques Audiard's film, The Beat, his protagonist Tom (Romain Duris) is in "real estate." Translated, that means he beats up the tenants in the low-rent buildings he and his partners hope to turn into high-rent properties. On the side, he provides similar services for his slumlord father, who's fading into senility. His late mother, however, was a famous pianist whose talent he has inherited. One day he encounters her agent, who encourages his return to the keyboard. Soon his fingers are flying--and his strong arm is beginning to atrophy.
There's much more to this richly detailed, sometimes humorous film: Tom undertakes an affair with his best friend's wife (Aure Atika); he and his Chinese piano coach (Linh Dan Pham) fall in love despite the fact that they don't share a language; he manages to profoundly imperil his father when he screws up an attempt to collect a debt from a Russian crime lord.
It is, to say the least, a busy movie. But it is also a curiously persuasive one. Maybe it is somehow easier to believe that a shady character living on the dark side of the City of Light might harbor high cultural aspirations. Then, too, Audiard has the French eye for mean streets. And cramped apartments. And less than salubrious bars and restaurants. The picture feels--as so many French films do--lived in, not art-directed.
It's the same way with Audiard's characters. It's probably safe to say that there has never been a hood who aspired to the concert stage. But the child of a roughneck father and an elegant mother who has lived an ambivalent, ultimately untriumphant life as a result is not unfamiliar. Out of a borrowed and preposterous premise, Audiard has fashioned a film that is more haunting--and more compellingly watchable--than it has any right to be.