Director Vincent Maël Cardona uses western Europe in the early-1980s as the canvas upon which he paints his layered and achingly genuine portrait of young love, familial bondage, artistic aspiration, and universal chaos. Unburdened by a firm connection to any one genre or narrative archetype, “Magnetic Beats” tells a simple story with a full arsenal of source music, thoughtful set design, and crisp acting at all levels to pull off this love letter to a particular moment in time. This is not to say that western Europe in 1981 was any more important than any other time and place, but for a young man on the cusp of adulthood, that moment, wherever or whenever that may be, will always be the fulcrum around which everything else rotates.
That young man in “Magnetic Beats” is Philippe (Thimotée Robart), who is the producer/engineer for a pirate radio station based out of Brittany that’s fronted by his older brother Jeróme (Joseph Olivennes). Philippe’s running narration buttresses the film in the form of a message to Jeróme, who Philippe admires for his fearlessness on the microphone (and with the ladies). This latter appreciation brings Marianne (Marie Colomb) into the young man’s orbit, as she’s a casual girlfriend of Jeróme but seems intrigued by the shy yet clearly gifted Philippe.
When Philippe gets called up for his compulsory year of military service for the French Army, he feels like he’s been ripped from a precious moment that will never return. Stationed in Berlin, Philippe is adrift in a world where his talents in the burgeoning electronic music scene are criminally unused, but more pressingly, it’s also where Marianne isn’t. Although he lucks out by falling in with Edouard (Antoine Pelletier), a sympathetic comrade whose military assignment has him working with a British radio outfit, Philippe can’t shake this idea that he’s surrendered the most precious phase of his life without a fight. “Magnetic Beats” follows Philippe on his journey to reclaim this flash of opportunity and tracks the ways he’s forced to grow up and into the moment.
This coming-of-age thru-line is just that, though: a narrative spine (albeit a solid one) that supports an even more diverse story. This is also a movie about brothers, which is itself a placeholder for the social, economic, and political winds of change blowing through France in the early-80s. It’s no coincidence that the film opens with a scene featuring an election party for socialist President François Mitterrand, whose liberal reforms gradually improved the lives of the country’s citizens, but only after several years of increasing unemployment and currency devaluation. It’s in this moment, when France is on the cusp of social and political reform, at the dawn of a new era in electronic music, on the knife’s edge right before AIDS and Glasnost, that Philippe discovers his moment.
It’s a lot to take in, yet Cardona wisely keeps Philippe at the center of it, allowing the audience to feel the weight of young love, family obligations, military strictures, and creative energy exploding out of every uncovered seam. Working on what appears to be a shoestring budget, Cardona makes excellent use of the sets and locations he does have to create the illusion of a larger world in which all these lives (an East Berlin club scene in the second act creates space with tight shots and strobe lighting brilliantly). The director is also thoughtful with his lighting and color choices, using shadows early in the picture to communicate Philippe’s hesitation to claim the spotlight and sterile, neutral colors and fluorescent lighting to paint Army life as the creatively draining miasma that it is.
It’s the music that is the engine for “Magnetic Beats” and for Philippe, however, and here again, Cardona doesn’t miss. Period-appropriate tracks from bands like Joy Division and Gang of Four are blended with Philippe’s own analog remix creations, rooting the film not just in a temporal sense but within a specific creative explosion that would breathe life to an electronica movement still in its infancy. Again, for Philippe, this moment represents a tipping point, and it’s layered with competing visions of what the future holds with Jeróme, Marianne, or even Edouard, and how he navigates that feels both painfully genuine and ultimately satisfying.
Some of the broader socio-political realities might make for a confusing moment or two, especially to viewers born after the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Berlin. They might be confused why two French brothers broadcast something called “Radio Warsaw,” or why Philippe’s military service in the French Army sees him stationed in Berlin, but these are background flourishes that largely add flavor to the larger story, and only occasionally pull one’s attention away from the essential. Helped in no small part by a stellar cast that consistently under-sells the weight of their moments in a rope-a-dope maneuver that only draws the audience closer (except for Antoine Pelletier, who flat-out steals every scene he’s in by going the opposite direction with his performance), and a confident eye behind the camera, “Magnetic Beats” finds its rhythm early on and never loses it. [A-]