A Prophet - Jacques Audiard interview
Director Jacques Audiard has made the first ‘perfect’ film of 2010 in prison-drama A Prophet. Though he cites American influences such as Scarface, the film keeps Audiard’s ineffable French cool, as Tom Dawson finds out
Unlike his contemporaries – Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodovar and Michael Haneke, the name of French director Jacques Audiard carries little arthouse weight for British fans of European cinema. This situation looks likely to change however with the release of Audiard’s fifth feature, the superlative crime drama A Prophet. Ever since the two-and-a-half hour epic was unveiled at Cannes last May, where it won the Grand Jury prize, it has received rapturous reviews. At the London Film Festival in October it was awarded the inaugural Best Film award, and the jury president Angelica Huston declared it to be ‘a masterpiece, an instant classic and a perfect film.’
A Prophet is the story of a remarkable transformation. The French Arab protagonist Malik (newcomer Tahar Rahim) is a young illiterate drifter, who has been sentenced to a jail, which has effectively been segregated on ethnic lines. There he receives protection from a Corsican gang, headed by the mobster Luciani (Niels Arestup), in return for murdering a fellow inmate. But down the years of confinement, Malik teaches himself to read and write and to speak different languages, and maintaining good relations with the Muslim prisoners, he develops his own power base to usurp Luciani.
In many ways A Prophet deepens the themes and concerns that have preoccupied Audiard, the son of famous screenwriter and director Michel Audiard, since he made his debut in 1994 with the neo-noir See How They Fall. Drawn to personal variations on the crime genre, he focuses on morally ambiguous male characters, who are struggling to survive in oppressive milieu. In his 2001 thriller Read My Lips for example, Vincent Cassel played an ex-con forced to work in an office, in 2005’s The Beat that My Heart Skipped Roman Duris’ anti-hero is involved in real-estate scams, while in his 1996 breakthrough film A Self Made Hero, Mathieu Kassovitz’s fabulist reinvents himself after World War Two as a Resistance hero. Father-son relationships, whether literal or surrogate, are crucial in these tales, yet equally important is the sheer pleasure that Audiard takes in storytelling. Although realistic in many of its details, A Prophet is propelled by stylistic flourishes, not least Malik’s hallucinations of the prisoner he killed, Reyeb, who appears to him throughout the film.
In person the 57-year old Audiard is a nattily dressed figure, sporting a tailored suit, designer glasses and a brown trilby (his distinctive look is not a recent phenomenon. Ten years ago, when we met during his promotion of A Self Made Hero, he wore a flat cap and smoked a pipe.) Talking fast in French, the married father-of-three reveals that he became involved with A Prophet when he was sent a 160 page script by Abdel Raouf Dafir, who wrote the two Mesrine films. ‘I kept the essentials, but I had to do lots of work on it’, he says. ‘The main character Malik was originally very violent and hard from the beginning – he was a real killer. I think Scarface is a great film, but if you have a character like Tony Montana, you don’t identify with him at all. I think it’s very interesting instead to identify yourself with a character you don’t like all the time. You can create a tension between the fiction and the viewer. You force the spectator to wonder about his actions. By showing Malik dreaming, I could give this character a human interior.’
Audiard also made a small yet significant amendment to the original screenplay’s title, changing it from The Prophet to A Prophet, because in his words, ‘I like more abstract titles, which don’t tell you what to think. For me there are several senses to the title: it suggests a carrier of something divine in religious terms, and also a person who paves the way for something new in terms of the criminal world. Malik uses his intelligence rather than brute force to form alliances and get ahead. I was thinking of calling the film after the Bob Dylan song “Gotta Serve Somebody”, but that was hard to translate into French.’
The director went to considerable lengths in creating a ‘realistic’ prison environment for A Prophet. He visited working jails, cast actual inmates in background roles, and on a disused industrial estate, and built his main set, complete with corridors, cells and staircases. Yet he stresses that his film is not intended to be an intervention into the current debate within France about the country’s failing prison system. A Prophet is like all his films in that it is a work of cinematic fiction, although he relishes the irony that for Malik ‘prison is the perfect school for crime.’
Throughout his career, Audiard has gained deserved plaudits for drawing out compelling performances from now celebrated male leads Kassovitz, Cassel and Duris. One of the exceptional aspects about A Prophet is that Tahar Rahim had very little professional experience before Audiard took the gamble of building a whole film around him. Why, I wonder, did the filmmaker think Rahim was so suited to the role? ‘I’d always thought of Malik having a natural innocence’, he replies. ‘Tahar is a pretty young man, who, although he comes from Toulouse, he looks as though he could come from Portugal or Italy or Corsica. He’s not a dramatic person – he’s not an Al Pacino. And he’s certainly not a violent man. It was very much a character part for him. He really had to work on playing Malik.’
A Prophet, selected release from Fri 22 Jan.