In Her Hands (Au bout des doigts)
France (2018) Dir. Ludovic Bernard
Musical ability is something many of us envy in others. Some are able to write a good tune, or fire off a memorable riff on the guitar, some have a innate gift to interpret the works of esteemed composers and make it their own. But while talent is obviously one thing, attitude is another…
In the middle of a packed Gare du Nord, truculent petty criminal Mathieu Malinski (Jules Benchetrit) entertains passersby with a stirring rendition of a Bach piece on the public piano before fleeing the station police. Observing Mathieu’s playing was Pierre Geithner (Lambert Wilson), director of the currently floundering national conservatoire, who sees the potential in the young lad.
However, Mathieu is caught during a burglary and due to be sent to prison when Pierre steps in and barters a community service deal in his conservatoire, with the added proviso Mathieu also takes piano instruction to make him contest ready. Mathieu is put under the instruction of stern Countess Elizabeth Buckingham (Kristin Scott Thomas) but his surly attitude disrupts their lessons, until his attraction to cellist Anna (Karidja Touré) makes him rethink his motives.
Do all Parisian train stations have a piano in the central hub for anyone to play or just the Gare du Nord? Either way, I’ve learned something from In Her Hands, otherwise this is your average, by the numbers “bad boy comes good” story. Since the DVD artwork shows a delighted Countess in mid applause, the end is spoiled before we’ve put the disc in the player, just in case this wasn’t already predictable enough.
But let’s not write this film off completely, it does boast a strong cast and is competently made despite being derivative; if it wasn’t for the coarse language it would be acceptable Sunday afternoon entertainment. Director Ludovic Bernard, former assistant director for the likes of Luc Besson and Guillaume Canet, appears to be happy making safe, crowd-pleasing films and not carve his own niche like his former mentors.
Not that this is an issue of course – films don’t always need to be artistic or emotionally deep, whether it is unfulfilling or not is purely subjective. In this case, Mathieu might be a ruffian but his good looks will keep the ladies’ attention for sure. Huddled over the piano in his street clothes delivering a technically proficient performance suggests either a savant or impoverished prodigy until the police chase implies his delinquency.
As it transpires, Mathieu lives on an estate with his mother, and two younger siblings so life isn’t so flush which is why he and his friends deal in dodgy goods, often unlawfully procured themselves. There is a piano at home, bequeathed to him by the late old man who first taught him as a youngster, but as his mother couldn’t afford lessons, Mathieu essentially taught himself before going off the rails.
Like all true musicians, Mathieu is a slave to is passion so when he and his gang break into a posh house that just happens to have a grand piano, guess who is tickling the ivories instead of searching for valuables? He is even caught mid sonata when the police arrive! Yet Mathieu seems unable to see his talent as a means to perhaps better his life and parlay it into a successful profession – instead, he rejects any idea of a future in it for him.
Even when Pierre offers him a lifeline, Mathieu shrugs it off until his arrest, using his statutory phone call to contact Pierre, who has been given three months to turn the conservatoire around or else. Mathieu might be the answer to his problems – he has the talent but his attitude is abrasive at best, kicking off whenever anything resembling a request or instruction is put to him.
Regular clashes with the exacting Countess fail to encourage her to endorse Mathieu as highly as Pierre does, and it is a surprise she doesn’t belt the stroppy git, but luckily Anna’s influence is enough to drag him back in line, sometimes. And wouldn’t you know it, there is a national competition and Mathieu qualifies for it but then the brown stuff hits the fan to throw it into jeopardy.
Suffice to say, with only 20 minutes left in the film at this point, the script goes into overdrive to fit in the plot staples that should have been introduced earlier in the film, along with the usual contrivances to add to the dilemma. Granted the idea was to build up the main characters, but there is only so much of Mathieu storming out of a lesson or conversation we can take before it gets stale.
I have to say in full disclosure, the DVD I watched was corrupt, rendering three minutes unwatchable, during which I missed some vital information, including why Mathieu is so uptight about music and the conflict that forced him to walk out on Pierre ahead of the competition. Whilst the outcome was never in doubt, it is still frustrating not to be aware of these crucial facts thus Mathieu is still a petulant twerp to me.
Jules Benchetrit plays the part of Mathieu well enough but is too baby faced to come across as legitimately edgy, but deserves credit for his convincing piano playing after a crash course to learn the instrument. Lambert Wilson brings passion to the proceedings as Pierre, whilst Kristin Scott Thomas feels chosen for the role of the Countess purely for being half-English. And after her dynamic breakout performance in 2015’s Girlhood, Karidja Touré is wasted here as Anna.
The real problem with In Her Hands is not that it is a bad film rather it doesn’t try hard enough to differentiate itself from every other redemption tale, thus seems content to settle for mediocrity. Given the name talent involved and its positive message about chasing dreams, it could have been more than it is but isn’t egregiously bad or insincere as similar outings.