Romain Duris ("Gadjo Dilo," "L'Auberge espagnole") raises the bar on performances this year with his gripping portrayal of 28-year-old Thomas Seyr. Since the death of his concert pianist mother he's put aside his music and fully entered the world of his father (an outstanding Niels Arestrup): real estate "brokering" that entails harassing squatters, brutalizing deadbeats and greasing palms at City Hall. Thomas' partners are chronic philanderer Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccai) and devoted family man Sami (Gilles Cohen), whose solution to the problem of squatters is to release sacks of rats into buildings. Thomas' only redeeming quality is a fierce, childlike restlessness; he's good at what he does, but he's not really there. In his chunky-heeled Chelsea boots, cropped leather jacket and headphones pumping electronica, he's all coiled energy--gum-chewing, chain-smoking, jitter-limbed. He's fuel seeking an engine, and driving through Paris one night, he finds one.
Thomas all but stops traffic to say hello to the man who managed his mother's career. More startling, though, is the way he awakens during their brief conversation, suddenly alive with humility, hope and soul-deep pride, as opposed to his usual trafficking in ego. Offered the chance to audition for the impresario, Thomas embarks on a practice regimen--and the movie settles down from the jumpy volatility of its opening sections. His coach is Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), a Vietnamese scholarship student from the Beijing Conservatory who speaks not a word of French. Thomas' daily sessions in her sunny apartment, where he works to master Bach's Toccata in E Minor, are mesmerizing pas de deux of vulnerability, transcendent spirit and comically dueling languages.
The road to artistic expression is no straight shot for Thomas, the role of enforcer no easy thing to relinquish when it involves filial honor and the protective feelings that arise when fathers can no longer take care of themselves--a theme Audiard and co-scripter Tonino Benacquista lay forth in the monologue by Sami that opens the film. Bolstered by superb supporting performances and composer Alexandre Desplat's elegant complement to Bach, "Beat" is a vibrant and exacting character study. Thomas' intelligence burns through Duris' gaze, and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine's intimate handheld work never misses a beat of the actor's flashpoint intensity. Starring Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Linh-Dan Pham, Aure Atika, Emmanuelle Devos, Jonathan Zaccai, Gilles Cohen and Anton Yakovlev. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Written by Jacques Audiard and Tonino Benacquista. Produced by Pascal Caucheteux. A Wellspring release. Drama. French-, Vietnamese- and Chinese-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 107 min