REVIEW: ‘In Her Hands’ (2020) is a Heart-warming, if Heavily Clichéd, Demonstration of the Power of Music

Rating: 3 out of 3.

In Her Hands is certainly far from perfect, but it succeeds in sweeping you up into an often-satisfying emotional journey, eventually leaving you at peace

Whether it is the similarities between sentence structure and a stave of musical notes, or the specialized words used to describe how a particular piece is played, there are many reasons to believe that music is its very own language. This has also gone both ways, with words like cadence and fugue being torn from their roots in music theory and repurposed in modern vocabulary.

However, Ludovic Bernard’s In Her Hands (2020), which tells the story of the gifted, but troubled young pianist Mathieu Malinksi (Jules Benchetrit) who is taken under the wing of a maverick musician Pierre Geithner (Lambert Wilson) and entered into a world-renowned competition, is encapsulated by a slightly more obscure feature of music theory – the ostinato. Derived from the Italian for stubborn, an ostinato is a musical phrase that repeats throughout the overall piece and it is this repeating of common motifs that is the main flaw of Bernard’s film.

Screenshot from In Her Hands. A man sits at a piano in a train station.
Image courtesy of Recifilms

Almost all of the film’s plot beats feel like repetitions of scenes from other ‘young prodigy overcomes adversity to achieve success’ films, ranging from the musically-similar Whiplash (2014) to the thematically-similar Good Will Hunting (1997), that have been stitched together to create a film that is far less than the sum of its parts. Flashbacks to Mathieu’s troubled upbringing, check. His mentor Pierre’s tragic past which explains his desire to help, check. The introduction of a strict and doubtful teacher with a nickname, in this case The Countess (Kristen Scott Thomas), who eventually softens to support their student, check.

To invoke even more musical terms, it is akin to a remix where, instead of using existing material to create an innovative genre-inverting piece, the source material is badly sampled and assembled into the most generic pop song of all time – essentially it’s the film equivalent of Vanilla Ice’s rehashed ‘Ice Ice Baby’ compared to the seminal Queen and David Bowie’s track ‘Under Pressure’ from which it draws its baseline. Although, unlike ‘Ice Ice Baby’, for the most part In Her Hands avoids feeling like a totally hackneyed, cynical cash grab and, despite its plot issues, it does possess many likeable elements.  

Screenshot from In Her Hands. Two men stand in front of a piano.
Image courtesy of Recifilms

The film’s robust character development succeeds in giving it a fairly solid thematic foundation and the excellent performances of Benchetrit, Wilson and Thomas enhance this even further. In particular, the chemistry between Wilson and Benchetrit as tutor and tutee respectively is powerful enough to single-handedly provide the emotional backbone of the entire film. The introduction of Anna (Karidja Touré) as a love interest for Mathieu is also another successful aspect of the film, as it perfectly captures the underlying class struggles and financial barriers that prevent people from lower income backgrounds participating at elite levels. 

In addition to its character development, the film also succeeds thanks to its beautiful cinematography which deftly contrasts the grimy, deprived Paris suburbs where Mathieu grew up with the bright, almost clinical conservatoire where he has finally been given the chance to succeed, further highlighting his internal struggle between staying true to his roots and achieving his dream. 

Screenshot from In Her Hands. A man and a woman embrace outside of Notre Dame at night.
Image courtesy of Recifilms

This theme of change is also explored competently by the film’s soundtrack, which flits between Harry Allouche’s original classical score and more contemporary tracks from the likes of Groove Armada and Pixies, depending on the location of the scene. Specifically, the use of the latter’s ‘Where Is My Mind?’ to accompany Mathieu and Anna on their late night date roller-skating around the streets of Paris gives the scene a wonderfully touching edge and accents Mathieu’s newfound happiness thanks to the opportunities now being afforded to him. 

Although fundamentally these strengths aren’t enough to draw the glaring plot issues back together, they do more than just paper over the cracks. They demonstrate that there is a sentimental core at the centre of the film which provides some truly engaging character development and emotionally resonant moments. In Her Hands is certainly far from a perfect film, but it succeeds in sweeping you up into an often-satisfying emotional journey, eventually leaving you at peace – and isn’t that ultimately what music is all about?

Director: Ludovic Bernard

Screenwriter: Ludovic Bernard, Johanne Bernard

Producers: Eric Juherian, Mathias Rubin

Cast: Lambert Wilson, Kristen Scott Thomas, Jules Benchetrit

Release Date: July 10th 2020 (UK)

Available on: Curzon Home Cinema

Featured image courtesy of Recifilms.