In Her Hands (Au Bout des Doigts) – Film Review

In Her Hands has a boy musical genius, a frosty musical teacher and an accomplished musical event to strive for, sound familiar? You may be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like Whiplash and in many ways In Her Hands contains similar themes. However, In Her Hands does not have the same emotional resonance as Whiplash, and hits the wrong notes occasionally. Essentially, In Her Hands is a light, coming of age tale of a boy from the Paris banlieue crossing over to the right side of the tracks as his musical genius is recognised.

Kristin Scott Thomas is the main draw within In Her Hands reprising a French speaking role as the ‘Countess’, which is a subtle reference to her English regal demeanour. Scott Thomas returns to a glacial, haughty performance, as the Countess, for which she is renowned and is therefore not stretched within the film. Mathieu lands on the Countess’ lap as the unpolished student whose musical gift is in need of refinement and so, of course, the Countess is the one to turn him around. There is also an appearance from Karidja Touré from Girlhood, which is similarly set in the Paris banlieue, but her talent seems wasted here as Mathieu’s love interest.

In Her Hands follows that narrative of an impoverished student whose talent belies his background. Mathieu is arrested in the process of a burglary but is given that lifeline through his music, which he has unveiled earlier at railway stations. How many times might you have stopped to listen to the pianists playing on the individual pianos at railway stations? This is where director Ludovic Bernard introduces Mathieu as he is spotted in a mesmerising scene, with a superb tracking shot, as the music envelopes him.

The train station provides that space and so allows the music to have its own role. It is perhaps every young musician’s dream to be talent spotted in this way but In Her Hands decides to employ a few obstacles. The condition for Mathieu to avoid being imprisoned is to enrol in a prestigious musical conservatory. There is a degree of inertia on Mathieu’s part as a result but this portrayal is not wholly convincing.

Equally, In Her Hands superficially brushes over Mathieu’s family background but briefly examines the social mores and differences in class. Mathieu seems to be working class as he lives in the banlieue, In Her Hands therefore subscribes to those stereotypes associated with the banlieue whose residents, within Paris set films, are often embroiled in criminality. In Her Hands brings nothing new to this genre as it remains superficial and as such resorts to predictability.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Jules Benchetrit in In Her Hands
Kristin Scott Thomas and Jules Benchetrit in In Her Hands

In Her Hands is a light, drama with a beautiful musicality. Its tone focuses on this transformation of Mathieu and as such there is the expected love interest to assist with his journey. Anna, played thoughtfully by Touré, is that love interest and in a reversal of roles, it is the woman, who is black, that is in the more privileged position, which should have been developed further. This does cue a clumsy dialogue surrounding class in one of the few moments where such disparity is directly addressed.

However, it is difficult to sympathise with Mathieu as the film lacks that emotional depth, particularly as Mathieu attempts to straddle two worlds. Despite the Countess telling Mathieu that the ‘emotion must be apt and deep’, In Her Hands struggles to display any emotion. As such, it is just better to focus on the emotion of those hands on the piano as they produce such hypnotising melodies.

The cinematography within In Her Hands is enthralling as it provides that emphasis on the various pianos by placing them on a spotlight. We therefore see Steinway, Bechstein and Yamaha pianos and these are artfully presented and so by the end of In Her Hands you will probably be au fait with many of the prestigious piano brands to try. In Her Hands literally shines that spotlight on Mathieu as well whilst playing the piano which creates that heavenly sensation. The light shines from a corner with its golden hue creating that concert sensation even whilst Mathieu practices in private.

Of course, there are other obstacles along the way and so it is not a linear path for Mathieu to perform within the prestigious concert despite the personal support from his talent spotter, Pierre. At moments, this seems contrived as a plot device but is certainly reminiscent of scenes within Whiplash once more although, as mentioned earlier, Whiplash conveys these emotions better with its intensity and obsession apparent.

A slight sub-plot delves into Pierre’s family life which does seem superfluous but also suggests that music is life and that as a musician you are breathing life for others. Indeed, Pierre remarks something similar to Mathieu as he explains that the reason that Mathieu probably enjoys playing music is because ‘music is vital’ and ‘music is all that counts’. However, In Her Hands fails to substantiate this element of obsession further but this does not detract from the beautiful piano playing which breathes life into the film.

In Her Hands ties its various strands up a bit too neatly but it would be perfectly suited for a Friday night film with friends as it is an easily digestible coming of age tale with amusing moments. Plus, it is always a delight to see Kristin Scott Thomas in a French speaking role and to watch a Paris based film.

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