Stripped down, Jacques Audiard's award-winning film A Prophet is a pure prison drama.
Fame locked up
Jacques Audiard is the chameleon of French cinema; he makes films that the art-house crowd love but with a sensibility and style that is pure Hollywood. He has become so famous for his work in the crime genre that having directed just five feature films, he will be the subject of a British Film Institute retrospective in January that showcases his directing efforts against some of the classics of the French thriller genre, including Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 effort Les Diaboliques (The Devils), Jean Renoir's 1938 classic La Bete humane (The Human Beast) and Marcel Carne's incredible Le Jour se leve (Daybreak). And yes, Audiard's work, especially his new film, A Prophet, deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.
A Prophet, which screens tonight at the Dubai International Film Festival, has been winning awards ever since it played at Cannes in May. It won the Grand Prix of the Jury Prize, generally considered the runners-up gong at the festival. Such was the consternation among the press that his film had been beaten out by Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon that, at the post awards ceremony press conference, the 57-year-old director had to remind the assembled media corps that "I'm very happy with the prize I won, it's a great prize". More recently A Prophet won the first Best Film award given out at the London Film Festival.
A Prophet is perhaps the best attempt made by any filmmaker to try to understand what would push a young Muslim man, who has grown up and sees himself as being part of the West, to reject the values of the majority in his society and seek solace and comfort in the arms of people similar to him. The analogy made could even be extended to explain why someone could get pushed into terrorism. Sounds heavy, doesn't it? Well in fact it is anything but, if you stripped away all the metaphors and symbols, what is left is a pure prison drama about a young man trying to protect his reputation in jail. It's the story line of many a Hollywood film.
Although it is most reminiscent of the work of the British social realist director Alan Clarke, A Prophet is like Scum and Made in Britain rolled into one. Although, when I put this to the director, he said: "No, I was not inspired by any particular prison film. We carried out a certain amount of research. I visited a number of prisons in France - two or three. The set was sort of a synthesis of two or three prisons."
One of the facets of Audiard's work, in particular A Self-Made Hero starring Mathieu Kassovitz and his last outing, The Beat That My Heart Skipped with Romain Duris, is that the Paris-born director is a master at capturing male angst. The testosterone fuelled drive that makes men, particularly young adults, want to be at the top is at his peer group. He also elicits brilliant performances from his male leads and it was his remake of James Toback's Fingers that made Duris an international star. This time it is the previously unknown actor Tahar Rahim who is getting the lift up for his career.
He plays Malik, who upon entering jail decides that the best way to protect himself from harm is by becoming the top dog behind bars. A Muslim, he at first rejects the overtures of the Islamic prisoners and joins the ruling Corsican gang. No matter how ingrained he becomes with the group, Malik is always seen as the outsider and referred to as "The Arab." He is constantly asked to prove his worth and one such demand leads to a psychological trauma that results in Malik questioning if he really wants to belong to the Corsican gang. His rejection of them mirrors the tensions in European society, which have become particularly pertinent in a post 9/11 world.
The director explains: "Really, when he first starts out in the film he has no identity at all. He's a homeless person, he's neither Arab or religious. The other people in prison give him his identity. It's the Corsicans who give him his identity - you're an Arab, you're a dirty Arab. He finds his identity in prison and turns to his community in prison. But not necessarily religion that much. It's about being part of the community."
It is shot with Audiard's trademark zip and picture-frame tight angles. It's a signature that he claims came about by accident. "I've always filmed with very tight shots. I'm extremely near-sighted. My wife said to me that you make films that are a near-sighted person's film. I had my eyes operated on nearly three years ago so I'm no longer near-sighted and I thought that might change my way of filming, but it hasn't changed anything at all in fact," he said.
As the director talks he gives the distinct impression that he doesn't really want to be too serious. There is a self-aware rebelliousness and irony to his conversation. It is mirrored in his dress sense, he's wearing all white and has a flamboyant white hat that looks like it's been stolen from a hip-hop video. He is remarkably trendy and looks at least a decade younger than he is. I get the impression that he doesn't really like talking deeply about his films.
When I ask him about the role of Islam in the film, he flippantly replies: "You're not a fundamentalist, are you?" His failure to be serious is occasionally irksome. The recurring theme in Audiard's films is the master training the apprentice. Here it is the Corsican gangster, played by Niels Arestrup, who is the guide for Malik. It is another feature of his work that the director says is unconscious. "But if it's a story of an apprenticeship, yes it's the story of an apprenticeship. It's not a conscious choice - the theme of apprenticeship - I'm not aware that I do that.
"The film critics have made me realise I always come back to that. I guess I have to admit it. It's a very good dramatic arc mechanism for filming actors. Using a bit of comedy like Groundhog Day, it's a mechanism that works very well." This is occasionally manifested in father-and-son relationships in his films, in particular The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a rare beast in that it is a remake that is better than the original. One can see it figuratively in his first film, the noir thriller See How They Fall, which he made in 1994.
Audiard's father, Michel, was a popular screenwriter, who wrote more than 100 films and directed nine feature films. Audiard began working as a trainee editor and worked on Roman Polanski's Le Locataire (The Tenant). By the 1980s, he was forging a successful career as a screenwriter, writing hits such as Mortelle Randonnee (Deadly Run, 1983) and Saxo (1987). The likes of Claude Miller and Michel Blanc employed him.
In 1994 he made a huge splash with his first effort in the director's seat. His road movie See How They Fall won three Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, including best editing, best new director and best new actor (Matthieu Kassovitz, the La Haine director who would feature prominently in Amelie). Given the need to come out of his father's shadows, it's perhaps not surprising that Audiard is so obsessed with the relationship between teacher and pupil.
Audiard though is quick to dispel this assumption. "No I don't see any similarities. When you're a kid and your father is an engineer, he goes to the office. I saw my father get up and go to the office in the house and write. And I knew he made movies. He was at home writing. "For me, there was no great myth around the movies when I was a younger child. My father was very simple about the whole thing. He did not consider cinema an art. Cinema was entertainment. Literature and music were art but cinema wasn't. He was very down to earth about it and I have no great complexes about it."
The result can be seen in the very Hollywood sensibility of Audiard's films. While the BFI has chosen to show them with French classics, it could easily have put his work next to the great American thrillers of the 1970s, such as French Connection. Indeed Audiard's decision to remake Fingers was possibly an attempt to place his own work within this context. In A Prophet, the Corsican godfather Cesar is the worst kind of father figure, one whose relationship with his protégé is based on power and control.
Audiard believes that this is just a small aspect of the bigger question that the film addresses: "It was not so much a question of domination between the two men, more there was a master/slave relationship and it reflected French society where Arabs are looked down upon, where they are not considered as equals. "If Cesar thought he had a son like that he would have been completely disgusted; very horrified if he had an Arab child."
The emphasis on entertainment makes his films extremely watchable. Read My Lips, starring Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos, is a roller-coaster ride from start to finish about a deaf girl who tries to help a seemingly tough-as-nails thief. Audiard is a master of mixing genres and in A Prophet this reveals itself when he introduces a ghost into the proceedings. It's a remarkable move and one that Audiard felt was one of the most important aspects.
"In the script there are two or three elements that come about that make me finally see what the script looks like, the ghost is one of them. Cutting up the chapters is another one of the elements I use to help give the film a form. The ghost gives an interior life to his character without words. He has a soul from then on in." The result is a haunting film that confirms Audiard's position close to the apex of European cinema. * The National