This is, unfortunately, going to be a post that contains almost entirely SPOILERS.
I’ve seen The Beat That My Heart Skipped a few times now, but for the first time on the big screen tonight. I really want to write about the final 20 minutes of the film. The film is a remake of the Harvey Keitel/James Toback vehicle Fingers, though far less raunchy and much more French. Thomas (the excellent Romain Duris) is an aspiring concert pianist who finds his time split between music rehearsal and the violent business of operating as a slum lord. Thomas’ piano teacher, Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham, doesn’t speak French, so they communicate through gestures and piano lingo. Thomas is also sleeping with his friend’s wife, Aline (Aure Atike) and collecting debts in violent fashion for his father Robert (a very bleach-blonde Niels Arestrup). A complicated life.
So, the final 20 minutes. Thomas fails his piano recital. Maybe it’s because he got no sleep the night before. Maybe it’s because he’s sexually frustrated (Audiard makes a definite connection between Thomas’ musical advancement and his sexual “conquests”). Regardless, the fantasy that he has carried with him throughout the film seems gone. Thomas goes to his father’s apartment and finds Robert shot dead, presumably by the Russian mobster Minskov (Anton Yakovlev).
Cut to black. Bring up intertitle: “2 Years Later.” Wow. What? At the height of the action we’re going to skip ahead that far? The last image before the time-cut is of a panic and grief-stricken Thomas. The first image after the transition is of Thomas astride a piano in an empty auditorium. He’s playing his heart out.
So what did we miss over two years? Audiard seems to imply both a lot and very little. Apparently Thomas has found some peace. He has somehow moved on from his relationship with Aline and is now dating Miao Lin. He is not, as the first cut in “present day” playfully suggests, now a famous pianist, but is instead Miao Lin’s manager. Violence seems very far away. So we have missed a lot.
But we have also missed very little. Shortly after this re-introduction, Thomas happens upon Minskov and attacks him in a stairwell, nearly killing him.
Why then, the two year gap? It works on multiple levels. First, it clearly makes the last part – the epilogue – readable as a dream sequence. Too much has changed and too much becomes convenient, for it to be unavoidable. Indeed, beginning with the shot of Thomas at the piano, hammers this point home – Thomas couldn’t get what he wanted because his ambitions (as his father and “friends” have told him) are ridiculous. But two years changes everything.
The cut – the before and after images of Thomas – also imply that Robert was standing in Thomas’ way of success. Start on the image of Robert dead and Thomas grieving, cut to Thomas alive and successful. As I’ve mentioned in blogs past – montage stuff (A+B=C).
But the cut also implies that Thomas hasn’t changed at all. That he has been carrying a burden of revenge with him for years. Audiard uses the first cross-cut of the film at the end here. A cross-cut: cutting between different locations and characters to imply simultaneous action (among other things). This cross-cut, though brief, is of Thomas attacking Minskov and Miao Lin taking the stage for her concert. The parallelism therefore also implies that this revenge is as much for Miao Lin (read: their life together; read: music; read: Thomas’ mother…something else entirely referred to throughout the film) as it is for Robert. The change in technique signifies, alongside the 2-year time-cut, that something is afoot.
The last thing worth noting about this ending is the way that Audiard shoots it all, cross-cut aside. He is intentionally playful. As I mentioned earlier, he re-introduces Thomas at a piano to imply success. When he re-introduces Miao Lin he places his camera at a distance. She and Thomas are framed in a wide-shot. Her face is in shadow. She now speaks French! In short, he takes great pains to conceal her identity and to point us in a false direction: that she is Aline, that the past is still past, that some things change and other things don’t.
This continues: the re-introduction of Minskov is framed as ambiguously as that of Miao Lin. It is also one of the more, if not the most, coincidental moments in the film. On his way to park the car Thomas spots two men across the street. Thomas has only gotten one good look at Minskov as far as we know. Two years ago. The shot is a wide shot. Cars cross frame. It’s dark. And it’s raining. Minskov is almost impossible to see. In fact, even the camera is momentarily “fooled.” For a split second it follows the wrong guy before reframing on Minskov. Similar to the re-introduction of Miao Lin we are led to believe at first that this man is someone different. We aren’t allowed to see Minskov, though our POV supposedly equals Thomas’.
Put all of this together and we have Audiard constructing two possible outcomes. Outcome 1: Thomas is a successful pianist (first shot after 2-year time-cut), married to Aline (concealment of Miao Lin), without any thought of revenge (coincidental/vague sighting of Minskov). Outcome 2: Thomas failed as a pianist, is married to Miao Lin, and has been consumed by revenge for two years.
How different this film would be if it left out that time-cut. It would feel as a much more simple revenge story, be less Kieslowski-an in its divergent paths and possible outcomes, and render Thomas’ situation as pessimistic.