By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 2, 2009 at 1:17AM
On my recent jaunt to London, I finally saw Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, which won the first ever best film award at the 53rd London Fest, after having won the grand jury prize at Cannes and scoring raves at Telluride. “‘A Prophet’ has the ambition, purity of vision and clarity of purpose to make it an instant classic,” said LFF jury president Anjelica Huston at the closing ceremony. “With seamless and imaginative story-telling, superb performances and universal themes, Jacques Audiard has made a perfect film.”
Well, I don't disagree with her. The movie was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and has been submitted by France for the best foreign film Oscar. It's too bad Audiard and breakout actor Tahar Rahim, who next stars in Kevin Macdonald's Roman epic The Eagle of the Ninth, don't have shots at Oscar noms; SPC will open the film in February.
French Algerian screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri offered Audiard a first draft that was well-reported (two other writers worked closely with the director); the prison milieu rings true. Audiard adopts the POV of the French Arab Malik (Rahim), and puts viewers through a grueling, realistic, violent edge-of-seat experience.
Bizarrely, this shut-down young man trying to survive by his wits and forced by a ruthless Italian gangster--played with brio by Audiard regular Niels Arestup--to do things that he didn't know he could do, thrives and gets smarter and wilier as he grows into a master criminal. And we root for him. Audiard likes to create empathetic characters, while keeping a certain distance that allows us to be critical of them, too.
"A story about an Arab in jail is something we don't like to see in France," Dafri said at the screening, describing this subject as "lumps" the French would like to "slide under the carpet." He claimed credit for the film's violence but "the poetry is Jacques Audiard's." While some have mistaken the film for a documentary, Dafri reminded the audience that it is fiction. "The film is a construction. No journalists can go into French prisons." Audiard constructed the film's prison set, however, on information supplied by ex-prisoners who vetted every detail.
Audiard gave a masterclass at the LFF conducted by critic Jonathan Romney (here's his Cannes review). Audiard started out as a screenwriter who had a chance to direct his first film in 1994, the narratively innovative (See How They Fall), with the combo of inexperienced actor Mathieu Kassovitz and veteran Jean-Louis Trintignan, which was quite daunting. After Audiard conquered his reluctance to return to filmmaking, he had a much smoother time two years later directing his own script with the same two actors in the picaresque French resistance film A Self-Made Hero. "My second film was written before my first film," Audiard said, admitting that he was influenced by The Sorrow and the Pity.
Audiard often combines an older mentor with a younger character: "I like the bildingsroman," he said, "the idea of education through odyssey. It fascinates me how any odd character becomes a hero. The character learns something, how to use skills in life."
By his third film, 2001's Read My Lips, starring Emmanuelle Devos as an isolated deaf woman who is unhappy at work and falls into an "impossible" relationship with a criminal (Vincent Cassel), Audiard was beginning to figure out how to use the script as a "device" and then improvise from there. He would shoot rehearsals and scenes and sometimes use bits of the rehearsal footage in the final film. After the first week of shooting the erotic charge between the two actors was so strong that Audiard completely rejiggered the direction of the film, rewriting each night. The sound design was quite innovative. "Before being chatty, cinema was silent," he said.
When a producer asked him what film he'd like to remake, Audiard instantly thought of James Toback's Fingers. Thus The Beat My Heart Skipped was born. He enjoyed turning Romain Durys's hipster image on its head. But Audiard didn't think of him in advance for the shady real estate salesman with a background in classical piano. "Once the script is written the casting happens, quickly," he said, "as if desire hadn't formulated itself and suddenly, it's there."
At the Q & A, he bristled at the idea of defining an art film vs. a commercial movie. Movies are "a popular form of art," he replied. "In popular art there is art and popular. Not many forms of art are like that, just music and cinema. I'm very attracted to that. That's why I do it."
Here's a French trailer for A Prophet: