Be careful! The E flat is Dead

In 2012 there was a French language film called In Your Hands (Director: Lola Douillon) which starred Kristin Scott Thomas.    This is relevant because there is a 2020 french language film out  called In Her Hands (originally Au bouts des doigts Director: Ludovic Bernard) which stars none other than Kristin Scott Thomas.    Wait. There is also a dance short film called In Her Hands starring Mathew Ball.   For the avoidance of considerable confusion – especially my own –  it is Ludovic Bernard’s film I am reviewing. I streamed this on the Curzon Home Cinema platform.

The owner of the hands matters in this story both from a gender perspective and from the point of view of taking personal responsibility, as well as metaphorically since the film is about a young pianist, Mathieu Malinski.

Mathieu is a teenage angst-y sort of person,  a working class lad from a single parent family with an understandably exhausted mother and various cute siblings.  Under circumstances which are not explained, as a child Mathieu has learned to play the piano – we see him having a first lesson from an elderly man –  perhaps a neighbour.  We later learn that this avuncular gentleman is called Monsieur Jacques.

When Mr. Jacques passes on from this vale of tears leaving Mathieu his beloved and rather ancient upright piano with a hand written note (‘be careful the E flat is dead’) there is no one to help Mathieu  further his musical studies.  This causes considerable tension at home as his mother, juggling various childcare and cleaning jobs, displays bemusement at being asked about piano lessons, as well she might given the cost of music tuition these days.  We presume Monsieur Jacques did not charge and was content to eat every third day.

Jules Benchetrit in Au bout des doigts (2018)


We pick up Mathieu’s  life again aged around 17 or 18. By this time he has got in with a bad lot but we see him playing the piano – Bach if my memory serves – on a ‘libre a jouer’ instrument in none other august arena than the concourse of the Gare du Nord.

The head of the Paris conservatoire happening by stops to listen.  He manages to hand the young man his business card and tells him to call.

Fast forward and Mathieu gets into big trouble – he is caught mid burglary  and is carted away in handcuffs.  Again our intrepid conservatoire head happens along in time for Mathieu to avoid a custodial sentence and get community service instead – 6 months of cleaning – guess where?  The Paris conservatoire.  You can see where this is going, right?  I mean subtle it ain’t.

The conservatoire is short of a genius for a prestigious competition upcoming.  So out goes the cleaning and in comes hours and hours of practise under the tutelage of La Countess, aka, Kristin Scott Thomas.

I’ve seen this film reviewed as ‘formulaic’ (Rotten Tomatoes).  And ‘sentimental, middlebrow, schlock’ (The Guardian).  I would say it is more accurate to describe it as  sentimental, derivative schlock.

The film leans like a ton of bricks on Matt Damon’s performance in Gus Van Sant’s  Good Will Hunting (1997) even down to the cleaning trope.  Remember Matt Damon mopping the night time corridors at the mathematics department of MIT?

Then there is Jamie Bell in Stephen Daldry’s iconic working class boy makes good tale  Billy Elliott (2000).  Add to that a scene somewhere near the end cribbed directly from Shine – Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar winning account of the life and times of virtuoso pianist David Helfgott – and what you have here is a mish mash of other much better films.

Formulaic yes, the well rehearsed trials of teen angst, exacerbated by poverty and too many temptations to nick a pair of branded trainers are all present, as are cupcakes and ample sprinkles of magical coincidence as well as forbearing benefactors willing to stake their considerable careers that they have no doubt  spent decades building up on a complete unknown with a volatile temperament.

Having said all of the above I have to admit to a guilty secret.  I actually quite enjoyed this film!  There is a  semi-chase scene towards the end which was quite gripping.  And also because I am a great fan of Kristin Scott Thomas who never disappoints.

But I wonder what  films like this do to create real opportunities for real young people who are never going to be discovered playing Bach on the concourse of the Gare du Nord?   Are we missing out on another Clara Schumann? Another Chopin?  Another Sviatoslav Richter? Yes of course we are.   What a silly question.     That is the whole point of no opportunity – it equals no one ever finding out you exist.

There is a lot of money in the film industry is there not.  Or at least there used to be pre-Covid-19.  How about using some of it to provide music scholarships for talented youngsters instead of inventing silly stories about fairy godmothers.