James Toback’sFingers (1978) is one of the great debuts in American movies, imagining that the enforcer son of a smalltime loan shark might also be a gifted concert pianist, then working through that Freudian/Dostoyevskian dilemma with the kind of agonized precision that could earn a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. It’s a private, shadowy movie, as raw as an open wound and erupting with terrifying expressions of emasculated rage — not ideal fodder for a remake. But French director Jacques Audiard has done just that, and the result is a vigorous reminder that, in filmmaking as in musicianship, an inspired interpretation can make something familiar appear altogether new. Some of the variations in Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped are merely cosmetic — the setting has been transposed from New York City to Paris, and the protagonist (called Jimmy in Toback’s version and now called Tom) has traded his doo-wop–blasting stereo for an electronica-issuing Walkman. Others are more significant, like the substitution of Tom’s relationship with a Vietnamese piano teacher (the sublime Linh-Dan Pham) for Jimmy’s ill-advised infatuation with a gold-hearted hooker. (Wisely, no attempt has been made to substitute anything for Jim Brown’s immortal turn as the honey-voiced pimp, Dreems.) Yet if Audiard’s film is less relentless and, ultimately, more hopeful than Toback’s, it is no less compelling a study of the attempt to harmonize seemingly dissonant forces — tenderness and brutality, classicism and modernity, France and Vietnam. In the role originated by Harvey Keitel, the young actor Romain Duris has an astonishing wiry intensity; whether he’s wielding a gun or tickling the ivories, his body merits a warning sign — Danger: High Voltage.
THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED | Directed by JACQUES AUDIARD | Written by AUDIARD and TONINO BENAQUISTA, based on the 1978 film Fingers by James Toback | Produced by PASCAL CAUCHETEUX | Released by Wellspring | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5 and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7