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French Filmmaker Remakes an American Flop


A French remake of an American movie is rare. Usually it's the other way around. The new French film "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" is even more remarkable because it's not a remake of a hit. The American original was an obscure 1978 flick called "Fingers." To top it off, the director of the original actually likes the remake. From member station KPBS, Beth Accomando reports.


French filmmaker Jacques Audiard was considering how to follow up his award-winning 2001 film "Read My Lips" when his producer suggested remaking an American film and asked Audiard if he had his choice, what movie would he redo. Audiard's immediate answer was James Toback's "Fingers," a movie, Audiard says, made him want to become a filmmaker.

Mr. JACQUES AUDIARD (Filmmaker): (Through Translator) In the films from the '70s pretty much till the beginning of the '80s, there was something very powerful about the filmmaking that was full of life, full of rage, very dynamic, and there was something very powerful that existed just in that time, in that cinematic territory. There were also amazing actors that came to the surface at that time as well, and it's perhaps the last moment where American cinema was--had this sort of freedom and innocence.

ACCOMANDO: "Fingers" starred Harvey Keitel as a young man who wants to be a concert pianist, but he spends much of his time collecting money for his petty mobster father.

(Soundbite from "Fingers")

Unidentified Man: Jimmy. Hey, what's this?

Mr. HARVEY KEITEL: (As Jimmy Fingers) Pizza money.

Unidentified Man: Not (censored) so fast, huh? ...(Unintelligible) terrific kid. They give you any trouble?

Mr. KEITEL: (As Jimmy Fingers) Are you kidding? I just said listen, dungeon head, next time my old man's coming up here, you understand?

Unidentified Man: Dungeon head? What'd he say to that?

Mr. KEITEL: (As Jimmy Fingers) Nothing. Just cut me the money.

ACCOMANDO: Director James Toback says he made "Fingers" at a time when filmmakers felt they could do almost anything.

Mr. JAMES TOBACK (Director, "Fingers"): The idea that you were doing something that hadn't been done, that was gonna rock the boat and question convention, you were gonna create characters who hadn't been seen before in movies, that you could have a protagonist like Jimmy Angellelli and not soften him at all, Harvey Keitel's character, and go right down into the core of his own dread and madness and end the movie with that look of intensity and despair at the end and not have to explain yourself and not have to tie things up neatly and have answers to every question. All that stuff is exhilarating and exciting.

ACCOMANDO: Even if it didn't make a lot of money. "Fingers" was a commercial flop and would have disappeared entirely if Francois Truffaut had not called it one of his favorite movies when asked by the American Film Institute. The legendary French new wave filmmaker praised "Fingers" as being simultaneously spare and unsparing, a comment Toback has committed to memory. But in adapting the movie, Jacques Audiard says he had to change it to make it work for contemporary French audiences.

Mr. AUDIARD: (Through Translator) In Toback's film, the setting is in the Italian mob, and for us that's something that belongs to cinema. It has no bearing in the French culture. So we had to transpose things in keeping that idea of realism, and especially the whole thing about playing the piano, in Toback's film, Keitel's character would go from being a petty mobster to then coming back and playing piano perfectly. But in my film, I wanted to show how difficult it was for him to choose this new road, to learn how to play piano and to show the incredible obstacles that this would present and to see how difficult this choice would be in his life.

(Soundbite from "The Beat That My Heart Skipped")

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

(Soundbite of piano music; screaming and pounding)

ACCOMANDO: Filmmaker Jacques Audiard turns the son of a mobster into the son of a sleazy real estate dealer. In Audiard's contemporary Paris, it seems that can be as dangerous as working in the mob, and "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" moves towards a violent end. But Audiard says he could not repeat the finale of "Fingers."

Mr. AUDIARD: (Through Translator) This film was quintessentially '70s in the sense that it was sort of fatalistic and romantic. The ending was very tragic, and I didn't want to repeat that in the film, and I don't accept that sort of fatalism in my films. Just from a screenwriting point of view, it's easier to write a tragic ending than it is to come up with a positive ending.

ACCOMANDO: "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" is a sort of dream, says James Toback, who calls his original a nightmare.

Mr. TOBACK: And I think the way he ends the movie, while it breaks from "Fingers," is a valid way for him to have gone. And ultimately, if you're gonna remake a movie, I don't see why you would bother if you were just slavishly going to transpose one scene after another exactly as the original. Why not just stick with the original then?

ACCOMANDO: One thing that Jacques Audiard knew he would have to handle differently is the violence.

(Soundbite of "The Beat That My Heart Skipped")

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

(Soundbite of fight)

Mr. AUDIARD: (Through Translator) I don't feel comfortable with violence, and I'm not sure that I film violent scenes properly, and it's something I'm reticent to do, and yet violence is sort of in all of my films. But in the scene--the original film, Toback's film, the final scene where the character kills the assassin, I couldn't do that in my film. I was more interested in the impossibility of killing.

ACCOMANDO: Each film reflects the era in which it was made, says James Toback. Ending "Fingers" with Harvey Keitel committing a murder challenged and shocked viewers in 1978. But pulling a gun and blowing someone away is unfortunately barely shocking for contemporary audiences.

Mr. TOBACK: The thing that was most interesting to me about the idea of his remaking the movie was that he was going to come up with something unexpected, and I looked at "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" as a communication back to me from a director who felt "Fingers" was a direct communication to him. And really what one is doing in making a movie, one hopes, is communicating on some level to strangers out there in the dark.

ACCOMANDO: Toback says that to complete the circle, he should do a remake of "The Beat That My Heart Skipped." But for now, he's just happy that the French have once again lifted his film out of obscurity. For NPR News, this is Beth Accomando.

(Soundbite of piano music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beth Accomando