In De Battre Mon Coeur S'est Arreté, the main character, Tom, goes through many ordeals in a desperate attempt to find himself. He works, like his father, in "real estate", which is an euphemism for "breaking into abandoned buildings, brutally forcing the inhabitants out, and then selling them". He is immoral to no end, as are his friends and associates. However, as the film unfolds, it's clear that he did not only inherit his father's interests; the individualism he has suppressed tries to break free by wanting to follow the footsteps of his pianist mother. Tom gets an audition with the man who managed his mother when she was alive, and begins to try and juggle the tough, almost mob-like life he leads as a "broker", and his piano rehearsals.
Tom is such an interesting character. He looks very tough and insufferable and he seems not to give a damn about anyone except his father, but when he shows a sensible side, it's heartbreaking. He cares too profoundly about his father, even though it's because of him that he works at something that he doesn't really like very much. His father sometimes uses him to get rent from stubborn tennants... and although Tom knows he's being manipulated, he can't say no. The father-son dynamics are very well developed and they are one of the many inner currents that suck you into the film. Audiard is very good at directing partnerships in which what is said isn't as important as what is implicit; he's an excellent actor's director.
As Tom begins to delve into piano playing, his sensibility begins to awaken from the somber letharg it had been in. When Tom works he is often in dark, dirty, unhealthy environments, frowning and swearing, whereas when he plays the piano, atlhough it enrages him not to play perfectly, he knows he has to unlink himself from that inhuman world. The piano becomes his escape, and his rediscovered love for art begin to form in him a desire to be a better person. Thanks to that he falls in love. And he begins to find his work revolting.
The drama kicks in with subtlety. The turning point is difficult to grasp; the film flows so harmoniously. But soon the problem will be fully exposed: Tom can't marry his job and his love for music. He can't quit either. Something very big has to happen. He detests his job but he's too intimately bound to it... he can't let his father down.
I thought this conflict was very original and very involving. I could feel very closely Tom's desperation and the different attitudes he takes in front of the difficulty of being his own person. A 28 year old man who is, all of a sudden, trapped, just while he is on the brink of making the most important change of his life.
Audiard's narrative is one of the highlights. He relies very much on visual language, and he does "speak" it with immense clarity. His dialog almost never makes reference to the great themes of the film, but they are always clear. I think what adds to DBMSE's charisma is that illusion of uncertainty. Which was the exact case of Sur Mes Levres, another great film.
Romain Duris is the force behind it all, though. He delivers a really fine, torrid performance... captivating when he wants to get his way, and tortured in front of his challenges. Most importantly, he plays Tom with contained passion and charming wickedness, which, in my opinion, defines him during the first hlafof the film. Later on, after the character discovers the changing power of art, he becomes eager, wide-eyed, excited but terrified. Duris evidences these changes so naturally it even seems careless.
Behind the violent premise -Tom's "business"- is a complex film. It's accessible but it requires attention and openness. This isn't just the story of a gangster "getting soft", it's about a person struggling desperately to be independent. Regardless of where that independence will lead him. Audiard seems to be a fan of people going to their limits and then exceeding them.