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French drive and American sloth 

The sexy, dark, and hopeful French flick The Beat That My Heart Skipped follows in that noble cinematic tradition of movies about people living day to day while their grand passion remains unfulfilled. Or perhaps it doesn't count since Beat is actually just a remake. Of an American film. This is possible evidence of Gallic absolution for the term "freedom fries," or maybe just a harbinger that the apocalypse is 'round the corner. The second theory seems more plausible, but at least with Beat we'll go out on a high note.

Jacques Audiard's follow-up to the slinky thriller Read My Lips stars the combustible Romain Duris as Thomas, a jittery 28-year-old who spends much of his time involved in shady real estate transactions that seem to take place only at night and incorporate satchels of rats into the business plan. During his other waking moments Thomas menaces money out of people for his father Robert (Niels Arestrup, in a virtuoso performance), obviously a formerly formidable lion of a man but now a doughy, egotistical curmudgeon.

Among Thomas's thuggy business associates is Fabrice, a married man who makes the mistake of enlisting Thomas's help in deceiving his wife Aline, a forlorn beauty who looks like Heidi Fleiss after a Big Mac or two. And Robert has recently hooked up with a much-younger model (Emmanuelle Devos, from Lips) whose motives aren't entirely clear.

Thomas's forgotten dream of becoming a concert pianist is revived by a chance meeting with the man who guided the career of his late mother. The transformation of the normally brash and edgy Thomas during the conversation is palpable, and he achieves full brightness at the mention of an audition. He's coached for this chance at a new life by Miao-Lin, a lovely Asian musician with whom he is unable to actually communicate because she doesn't speak French.

The clash between Thomas's brutal reality and his artistic ambition fuels the film, but the father-son relationship is the heart of Beat, as Thomas and Robert brawl their way through the power struggle that occurs when the child must begin taking care of the parent. Robert's resentment of this new dynamic manifests itself as cruelty toward his son, and Thomas, though he loves his dad, desperately wants out of his old lifestyle so he can realize his goals.

Duris, with the swaggering, hawk-faced beauty of fellow Frenchman Vincent Cassel (Ocean's Twelve), prowls through the superbly shot Beat like a nervous panther, unable to keep still as he works to prevent his two lives from intersecting. And it's a credit to Duris (as well as the crackerjack editing) that I remain undecided as to whether he was playing his own piano parts.

The source material for Beat is a 1978 film by James Toback called Fingers, which starred Harvey Keitel in the main role. I've never seen Fingers but I'm usually irritated by Toback's work (Two Girls and a Guy, Black and White), which tries really hard to push both buttons and envelopes but instead comes across (to me, anyway) as surprisingly humdrum and waaaay misogynistic. The female characters in Beat all suffer from the predictable Madonna/whore complex --- except for Miao-Lin, who is an invention for this film --- but Audiard allows them both sophistication and humanity.

Whether Toback did the same I'm not sure, and I don't care. I'm happy with this version.

Director Don Roos is back in the arthouse territory of his overrated The Opposite of Sex with the intricate ensemble piece Happy Endings --- "a comedy, sort of" --- that revolves primarily around two women. Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) is a counselor whose secret past has made her the target of clumsy blackmail by a wannabe filmmaker looking to use her situation for a documentary. Then there's the always-perfect Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jude, an opportunistic torch singer who seduces her possibly gay drummer before realizing the kid's father (Tom Arnold, whose moving work shocked the hell out of me) is a more lucrative target. And that's just the beginning of Endings.

The performances found in the film are uniformly strong, especially Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People) as Mamie's flummoxed stepbrother Charley. Roos's script is dryly funny but it may be a little too clever, as the characters' situations seemed ultra contrived. The handheld camera work really complements the film's intimacy.

But I was able to figure out three things as I watched the Endings: 1) Gyllenhaal sings beautifully; 2) Arnold can actually be believable in a romantic role; 3) Expository text on the screen --- like voiceovers --- is tantamount to cheating and may be the sign of a lazy filmmaker.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (R), directed by Jacques Audiard, in French with English subtitles, opens Friday, August 12, at Little Theatres. | Happy Endings (R), directed by Don Roos, is playing at Pittsford Plaza.

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