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Oui, an American accent

Cassavetes, Scorsese and Coppola have influenced Jacques Audiard.

June 30, 2005|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

To hear Jacques Audiard tell it, success hasn't made directing easier. With each new film, he becomes "more scared and less confident." Speaking through an interpreter in the shade of a table umbrella at the Sunset Marquis hotel last week, the French screenwriter-director of the award-winning "A Self-Made Hero" and "Read My Lips" worries that people aren't saying no to him enough anymore.

"I come from a tradition of screenwriting -- with a co-writer -- where everything is challenged, where you have to defend every idea," says Audiard, 53, who likes a film set populated by opinionated actors, camera operators and crew. "I am a robber of ideas, but for there to be ideas, you have to have discussion. If everyone takes my word for the truth, you can't do that."

Audiard's new film, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," which screened last week at the Los Angeles Film Festival and opens Friday, is on the one hand a cinematic crib -- it's a remake of James Toback's 1978 directorial debut, "Fingers" -- but also a tense, electric reworking of its clash between high and low culture. It tells the story of Tom, a nervy, music-obsessed youth (Romain Duris) torn between following his aging dad into a life of business criminality or turning an abandoned gift for playing classical music, bestowed by his mother, into a second shot at a career as a concert pianist.

Audiard considers "Fingers" a touchstone from his younger days soaking up American cinema of the '70s. "The films by Cassavetes, Toback, Scorsese, Coppola, they had an energy, a rage, a vitality and a dynamic quality to them, and something exotic as well. They were discovering the subcultures of America. One of the themes of this film is inheritance, and what I inherited from Toback's film is this sort of cinematic territory."

Toback says he was "both surprised and very pleased" by Audiard's version, partly because his original "seemed like a fundamentally French film to me." Toback says the French were some of the first to champion his psychodrama. He recalls a phone conversation in the late '70s with Francois Truffaut -- a big "Fingers" supporter -- in which Toback's request to meet the acclaimed French director in person was surprisingly turned down, but with an explanation. "He said, 'I think we should just continue to communicate with each other through our films.' It was the first time I thought of film as a means of communication with other filmmakers." Toback now thinks of Audiard's remake similarly. "It's as though I communicated to him through 'Fingers,' and he answered back with this movie."

If "Fingers," then, starts the dialogue with a slice of street poetry, Audiard wanted his response to reflect a hard believability, which for Audiard started with jettisoning Toback's mob angle. "That whole link with the Mafia, that belongs to cinema. There's no realism in that. So I set the film in a shady real estate world. I could bump into someone like that on the street."

He also wanted to show Tom's re-immersion into classical music -- spurred by a chance to audition for a professor -- as a task with considerable toil but without a lot of "big musicology discussions." So Audiard added a beautiful Vietnamese tutor (Linh-Dan Pham) who doesn't speak French. That way, "they only worked through the music itself," he says. But she is also a moral link to Tom's violent other world, since she represents an immigrant community often intimidated into evacuating desirable properties by Tom's thuggish partners. "It wouldn't be unthinkable that he would chase her out with a baseball bat," Audiard says.

The film has already received raves for Duris' explosive lead performance. "The screenplay chose him as much as I chose him, because the character is on the threshold, leaving post-adolescence and getting a sense of maturity. And he himself is on that threshold too." A former art student discovered on the street over 10 years ago by a casting agent, Duris has made 25 films since, but, says Audiard, what made him perfect for Tom was that "he was a reluctant actor, and there came a moment when he had to make a choice, and he has now become an actor by choice. Not a lot of actors could have played that role so effectively."

Audiard's film contains a personal element too, since the director went into the family business: His father, Michel, was a noted screenwriter, with more than 100 French films to his credit. Dad dismissed cinema's cultural merits, though, preferring to impart a love of books to his son. "He was more interested in having a discussion on Proust than on Welles," says Audiard, who studied literature at the Sorbonne. Though he says his father was loving enough to accept his son's career choice -- they even wrote a film together, 1983's "Deadly Circuit" -- Audiard jokingly invokes another truth about the parent-child dynamic.

"It would have pleased him way too much that I become a teacher or novelist," he says, laughing.

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