When James Toback wrote and directed Fingers in 1978 with Harvey Keitel in the lead role, he probably didn’t expect that two and a half decades on it would be reworked by a French writer/director named Jacques Audiard. Those of you who are familiar with his earlier Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips) already know what a good director he is; with De battre… he has shown himself to be one of the most exciting and confident filmmakers working today.
This is subjective filmmaking of a very high order. Immediately we are thrust into the world of Tom (Romain Duris), a small-time real estate crook who used to be a decent pianist. Everything that happens in the film, we see from his point of view – he’s in virtually every scene – so the film achieves a real sense of getting inside someone’s head. The plot turns on Tom’s decision to try and get back into playing the piano, with a view to getting out of derelict buildings and onto the stage. Whether he gets there or not depends on how well he can rein in his nerves, his constantly racing brain, and finally find calmness at the piano.
However, just as in La pianiste, piano-playing is shown not to be a pleasant creative outlet but a source of disappointment and infuriation. The scenes of him evicting tenants with rats and baseball bats have a similar nervous energy to those of him practising with his Chinese mentor (who provides some of the film’s best moments). He is always moving – his fingers, his feet, his eyes – he never stops for a moment to just relax. Duris’ tension-filled performance is instantly intriguing, and despite maybe a couple of slightly forced moments, he’s bang-on perfect, a mixture of good Ewan McGregor and (dare I say it) the incomparable Vincent Cassel. As well as the Chinese girl, the supporting characters include his real estate associates, their spouses, his dad, and a shady Russian man. They’re all mixed up in each other’s business some way or another, and they collide in different – some very powerful – ways.
Audiard’s direction is characteristically excellent. While this is not quite as complete a film as Sur mes lèvres, it enveloped me immediately and keep me solidly transfixed for its duration. Like Pawlikowski and Herzog, he has an uncanny sense of timing each scene perfectly so that it isn’t too short or long – each time we cut to a new scene, it feels like a perfectly natural progression, even if there may still have been more to say. The camerawork, almost entirely hand-held, fits the story well; he shoots in a freeform style with useful shifts in focus that is almost invisible. That is, you are never distracted by the nature of the images, but enthralled by what is contained within them.
I’d also like to make a special mention for the music. The best soundtrack I’ve heard in ages, this film mixes classical with French pop and house to extremely good effect. Scenes of Tom listening on the car stereo and Tom listening through headphones are interspersed among the scenes of him slaving away at the piano seemed to fit so very well. I can’t say why, it’s a metaphor for something maybe, or maybe it’s just a great way of showing how he’s in touch with the past and the present but slightly unhinged at the same time.
De battre… ends with an epilogue set two years after the main action that is alarming and brutal. At first it felt a bit sudden, maybe even out of place, but on reflection I think it fits perfectly and even sums up the film. We change, but we stay the same. Things grow in us, and are replaced by new things, but they don’t die out; they lie dormant, waiting for an opportunity to be brought to the surface. This is laid out in explicit detail in the epilogue, and we are left shocked and, in the case of this viewer, completely satisfied. This is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.