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A young man — it’s still almost always a man — from an underprivileged background turns out to be something of a musical prodigy in Ludovic Bernard’s In Your Hands (Au bout des doigts), a mainstream drama from France with a very familiar story that nonetheless finds quite a few grace notes on the way to an ending foretold. In terms of its stars, casting wasn’t exactly done against type, with Lambert Wilson (Of Gods and Men, Cycling With Moliere) playing the director of the Parisian conservatory who needs some sort of miracle to keep his job and Kristin Scott Thomas giving life to a hoity-toity countess who’s also the institution’s best piano teacher and who has agreed to take the rough diamond from the banlieue — with the nasty if amusing habit of always snapping back — under her well-groomed wing. But like the film’s formulaic plot outline, the veterans’ performances are peppered with unexpected little moments, turning what could have easily been almost too familiar into a slightly more textured work.
Released over the Christmas holidays in France, In Your Hands, which co-stars 20-year-old Jules Benchetrit — son of director Samuel Benchetrit and late actress Marie Trintignant — as the piano phenomenon, has done respectable but not spectacular business so far in a very competitive field. It’s already been presold to over a dozen other territories, mostly in Europe and Asia, and will please Francophile audiences for whom Catherine Breillat or Claire Denis may be a bridge too far.
In many major French railway stations, a piano is available for passengers trying to kill some time, either by playing it or listening to someone who can. Mathieu Malinski (Benchetrit) cannot help himself when he sees a piano available at the Gare du Nord in Paris, sitting down to play a sublime classical piece that catches the attention of Pierre Geithner (Wilson), the music director of the national conservatory in Paris who’s also in transit. But before the two can meet cute and bond over their shared love of Brahms, Malinski suddenly dashes off when he spots some police officers nearby, which leads to a chase.
This sudden hot pursuit around the Gare is serviceably if not breathtakingly staged by Bernard, which is a bit of a disappointment considering he was the first A.D. on French-produced, action-heavy films such as Lucy, Taken 2 and Jean-Francois Richet’s Mesrine diptych. That said, the sequence does establish the pic’s dichotomy between Pierre’s world of high culture and Mathieu’s world of low-life crime with his buddies from the ‘hood, and suggests how Mathieu’s talent could form a bridge between these very different milieus.
The bulk of the drama is set in the sleekly modern halls of the Conservatoire national de Paris (shot mostly at the La Seine musicale complex, overseen by architect Jean Nouvel). Geithner has been told by his boss (Andre Marcon, from Marguerite, in a cameo) that his position is in danger, with the press openly wondering whether Pierre’s still got what it takes. So he suggests bringing in someone younger and hipper to help revive the institution’s supremacy. But Pierre, stubborn as he is, decides that if they want young and hip, he’ll turn banlieue rug rat Mathieu into his protégé and send him to a prestigious competition the conservatory hasn’t won in several years.
So far, so predictable. There are a few maudlin, garishly lit flashbacks to Mathieu’s youth as a kid from the projects, when he became interested in playing the piano through an acquaintance but was then told there was no money for lessons by his overextended mother. There’s also a big narrative surprise in the second half that suggests there might be a specific reason why Pierre takes an interest in a gifted youngster like Mathieu who needs help. Bernard handles this revelation and its fallout pretty well, though a subsequent subplot involving Pierre’s wife (Comedie Francaise actress Elsa Lepoivre) feels undernourished in terms of character development and psychological complexity. Though the acting itself can’t be faulted, Benchetrit’s Mathieu also occasionally feels like a stick figure thrown randomly back and forth rather than a person whose not-completely-rational behavior suggests he’s full of contradictions, doesn’t necessarily know how to appreciate the chance he’s been given or what he even really wants out of life.
With all that said, and even though the writer-director and his co-writer Johanne Bernard don’t exactly reinvent the wheel in terms of plotting, there are quite a few lovely and unanticipated smaller moments. One is Mathieu’s slowly blossoming relationship with cellist and fellow conservatory student Anna (Karidja Toure), a black girl from a well-off family of musicians who functions as a natural counterpoint to Mathieu and his background.
Another is how the film gradually upends expectations about the Countess. We first hear one of her withering put-downs hurled at a student from behind a closed door, with Mathieu waiting outside for his first lesson with her. It’s a moment that’s played for laughs but also sets up the piano professor as a potential dragon lady of sorts. But Scott Thomas and the script gradually imbue her with more humanity. Two scenes between Mathieu and the Countess stand out: one in which they discuss things over Starbucks — product placement is a thing in France, too! — and another scene, later, when they watch a recording of the competition recital from the Countess from 1981 (a number that doesn’t add up because in the contemporary drama, the supposedly annual event celebrates its 25th edition — but that’s a minor detail). It’s also, somewhat depressingly, still refreshing to see a female protagonist for whom romance isn’t part of the plot in some way, so kudos to the writers for not taking the easy road and letting Pierre and the Countess simply have a deep professional friendship that’s all about their shared passion for music.
Indeed, the film’s biggest pleasures reside in the performances from Wilson and Scott Thomas, who take characters and a story you’ve probably seen before more than once but who manage to slowly unmask the individuality of their characters. Pierre and the Countess leave an impression and when we get a reaction shot from them at the end of the recital competition, it’s one that we’ve seen hundreds of times before. But here, because we understand who these people are, what they want and where they are coming from, it feels completely earned.
Technically, this is a capably put-together drama that looks pleasingly contemporary. Craft highlights include the costumes from Marilyn Fitoussi — her wardrobe for the Countess says as much about the character as the writing — and the fine selection of classical work from Rachmaninoff and Brahms, among others, on the soundtrack.
Production companies: Recifilms, TF1 Studio, France 2 Cinema, Everest Film
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jules Benchetrit, Karidja Toure, Elsa Lepoivre, Andre Marcon, Michel Jonasz, Xavier Guelfi, Telesphore Teunou
Director: Ludovic Bernard
Screenwriters: Ludovic Bernard, Johanne Bernard
Producers: Mathias Rubin, Eric Juherian
Director of photography: Thomas Hardmeier
Production designer: Philippe Chiffre
Costume designer: Marilyn Fitoussi
Editor: Romain Rioult
Music: Harry Allouche
Casting: Nathalie Cheron, Guillaume Moulin, David Baranes
Venue: Utopia Luxembourg
Sales: TF1 Studio
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