Two Brits starring in a French film. In Her Hands (Au bout des doigts in French) didn’t get a theatrical release in the UK or the US, so if the strategy was to guarantee anglosphere box-office action by casting Lambert Wilson and Kristin Scott Thomas (both of whom speak fluent French), it clearly hasn’t worked. The film did get some exposure in Canada (plenty of French speakers) and Australia, where it was called In Your Hands.
Perhaps that’s all a bit of red herring, because, though Wilson and Scott Thomas’s names come up first in the screen credits, it’s actually Jules Benchetrit who’s the star here. In his first major role, Benchetrit plays the moody wrong-side-of-the-tracks juvenile with a great gift – a natural talent for the piano.
The action opens with Mathieu (Benchetrit) playing Bach brilliantly on one of those pianos that now adorn big railway stations and being effectively discovered by Pierre Geithner (Wilson), a professor at a snooty conservatoire for classical music.
After a bit of plot shenanigans, things get going properly with Mathieu, all mid-finger attitude and scowls, at the conservatoire, where he is to be entered into an international competition. Just to add some jeopardy, Geithner’s job is on the line if Mathieu fails to win.
Kid with a raw talent being encouraged – in spite of himself – towards great things. The arc is Good Will Hunting (freely acknowledged by writers Johanne and Ludovic Bernard, who also directs), or Billy Elliot, or Star Wars, come to that.
Mentioning Star Wars only to drop it immediately on the grounds that it’s too heavy to lift, a Good Will Hunting or Billy Elliot needs a Robin Williams/Julie Walters mentor figure who is going to be stern but loving, exasperated and delighted, drained and sustained by the experience of tutoring this raw, wild and self-doubting talent.
Enter Kristin Scott Thomas as Mathieu’s piano teacher. I’m guessing Scott Thomas is playing an English woman since the Bernards have named her Elizabeth Buckingham, a joke about the sort of broom-handle roles Scott Thomas tends to be offered, surely?
Anyway, “la comtesse”, as she’s known (ironically?), gets to work, huffing to Mathieu’s puffing, rolling her eyes to his flounces, and nudging, cajoling and urging this piano genius into the light with method, discipline and technique.
Perhaps in an early draft the Wilson character and the Scott Thomas character were one and the same. As it works out, the film is interested in Pierre Geithner personally (his home life, his wife, his dead son), and takes no interest whatsoever in Elizabeth Buckingham outside the conservatoire. Though both Scott Thomas and Wilson are excellent in their roles, even their total commitment can’t hide the fact that one of their characters has no real reason to be here.
Still, Benchetrit can paper over that crack, can’t he? Sadly not. He’s a handsome man but there’s only so much any actor can do and Benchetrit’s lack of interiority counts against him. He only really comes alive in scenes with Karidja Touré, the joyous, gifted actor playing his cellist girlfriend Anna.
If you watched only the beginning and end of this film you’d be convinced that this was a familiar but entirely satisfying story, told with economy and hitting all the targets dead on. But that would be to miss the central section, when things become very sluggish. As well as superfluous characters clogging things up, odd plot details have been introduced only to be almost immediately dropped again. Mathieu prangs a tendon in his hand, for instance, only for it not to be mentioned again. He falls out with Anna, and then seems to be back with her, also without much explanation.
Some plaque in the arteries then, which dissolves every time Mathieu sits down to play the piano. From that opening Bach piece to the performance of Rachmaninoff 2 that’s the film’s showcase climax, the music is exquisite throughout. Take a bow Jennifer Fichet, who did the actual playing. If only she’d done a bit more.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021