With Audiard's new film The Beat That My Heart Skipped (the cumbersomely translated title is from a song by Jacques Dutronc), allow yourself a little time to settle in. I felt pretty much lost in the first 15 minutes, then realised how much that disorientation matched the subject. Audiard's anti-hero Tom is a stray in a world where things happen too quickly and too violently for anyone to really be sure where they are - or, indeed, who they are.
The Beat... is a reworking of James Toback's 1978 thriller Fingers, in which Harvey Keitel's character, improbably, was at once an accomplished classical pianist and a brutal hood. I say "improbably", but Toback's premise is that there's no hard-and-fast reason why a talented musician wouldn't end up neglecting his skills for a disreputable day job. It's a premise that Audiard makes very plausible, vividly conveying the anguished intensity of Tom's double life as a musician and as a thug operating in the shadowy world of unscrupulous landlords - caught, as it were, between Rachmann and Rachmaninov.
At the start of the film, Tom is seen in a car at night with his colleagues, en route to some nasty business and arguing about percentages. It's hard to tell what's going on - the dialogue comes in snatches, the men are silhouettes in the dark, lights rush past in a background smudge. It's only when we see Tom leaving sackfuls of rats in a building that we get the full measure of his dubious career. He's criminal and cocksure, jerking his head smugly to techno on the headphones that seal him off from the world.
Then we see another side of him, his surliness turning to puppyish enthusiasm when he runs into a classical impresario who knew Tom's pianist mother and thought the boy showed talent. Although he hasn't played for 10 years, he is invited to audition and resolves to master a Bach toccata with tutelage from a young Chinese woman, Miao Lin (Linh-Dan Pham).
If you came across this story in a Hollywood film (as opposed to a James Toback film, which is something quite different), you might reasonably expect redemption, tenderness, triumph against adversity. This being an Audiard film, you know that Tom's mission, noble as it seems, is a one-way ticket to perdition. For one thing, it stirs up the same madness that invariably affects classical musicians on film: Tom's father reminds him, "Look how your mum ended up," and although the family story is barely sketched out, we guess that music wasn't a soothing influence around the house.
Audiard and co-writer Tonino Benacquista achieve the film's peculiar density by running several plot strands in parallel, evoking a life that's just one thing after another, but also creating a sort of fugue structure. In between practising Bach and smashing up legal squats, Tom spends his time attending to the romantic and business crises of his reprobate father (Niels Arestrup), covering up the infidelities of a loathsome colleague, and starting his own affair with Aline (Aure Atika) from the worst possible motives. Stéphane Fontaine's restless hand-held camerawork thrillingly, and queasily, captures Tom's blur of an existence, which forever skates damagingly on the edges of other people's lives.
Romain Duris, who plays Tom, has been an inescapable presence in French cinema since the mid-Nineties, usually playing funky rebels or goofy slackers and invariably working his toothy grin for all it's worth. Here, however, he doesn't try to charm, but creates an abrasive, almost child-like introvert, a fragmented character who seems to mutate from one moment to the next - now a fervently driven artist, at least in his own mind, now a passively amoral figure who drifts into whatever dubious activity circumstances may present.
It's only in the piano sequences that Duris verges on being mannered - lost to the world as Tom hammers out his fingering on a nightclub counter, or barking angrily at his recalcitrant left hand. But the overall subtlety of Duris's performance is that even when Tom abuses his charisma, coercing or seducing, Duris never tries to make us like the character. The scene where Tom hits on a Russian mobster's girlfriend mixes charm and threat, yet we never warm to him as we're accustomed to doing with screen bad boys. Instead, we're made aware of Tom forever digging himself deeper into a moral hole, all the more so because he fancies he's protected by his high-cultural leanings.
The film's provocative argument is that we shouldn't look to high art to civilise us, or to soothe the violent soul. Like Michael Haneke's emotionally brutal The Piano Teacher and even - in a far softer register - the David Helfgott biopic Shine, The Beat... suggests that the obsessive drive required to master classical playing is a form of self-destructive neurosis. After seeing this extraordinary film, you might prefer your kids to give up practising their scales.