Directing isn’t an especially glamorous job. It involves long days and lots of stress, sometimes for little reward. Most directors started out as regular film fans, but with the passion and talent to take it a step further. So they tend to look like regular film fans. Even Spielberg spends most of his time looking like he’s just wandered on to the set from the nearest blue collar bar.
But not Jacques Audiard. Oh no. Audiard is different. Gloriously, splendidly and defiantly different. He is, of course, French, which probably accounts for some of it. But even by the standard of his compatriots, Audiard exudes an exemplary air of artistry. Pretentious? Him? Well yes, and why not?
Audiard has been part of the French cinema establishment for three decades, scripting for the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve. He made his directing debut with 1994’s See How They Fall, a tough drama about a man seeking vengeance for a murdered friend. It was a critical hit in France, winning Audiard the César for Best First Film. Another smash followed with A Self-Made Hero, a comic drama of post-war disillusionment that earned Audiard a Best Screenplay award at Cannes in 1996. His third film, 2001’s Read My Lips starring Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos, won Audiard his second César, again for writing. But it was The Beat That My Heart Skipped, released in 2005, that represented an international breakthrough. A stunning exercise in masculine cinema, it cleaned up at the Césars, won the Silver Bear in Berlin and a BAFTA for Best Foreign Film.
And yet for all that success, Audiard’s career so far has felt like a prequel, a proving ground. And out of it has come A Prophet, a singular, explosive cinematic statement and the most complete film of Audiard’s life.
So here he is, in person and how. Reclining carelessly in a chair, Audiard looks like the spiritual son of Jean-Luc Godard. Which, thinking about it, he might actually be. Vintage ’50s Wayfarers obscure his eyes; a dashing trilby sits handsomely on his bald head; and polished leather shoes sparkle beneath. His language is thickly accented and finely oblique. He is the image of the confident auteur.
LWLies: Was there a lightbulb moment for you when you realised that cinema had become part of your life?
Audiard: I love this question because I don’t think I’d be able to answer it in the same way at different stages of my life. It’s funny because yesterday I was smoking outside and I was thinking about that. It’s not so much what cinema meant to me when circumstances made me decide to go for it; if I hadn’t had cinema at a specific time of my life I wouldn’t have been able to communicate. It really is an issue of communication for me. I tell myself nowadays that I have to go through these deceitful ways to be able to communicate. When I started, when it suggested itself to me and I was given the opportunity to make films, I was actually in a very deep depressive state.
So cinema is a language for you?
Absolutely. If anyone said it was anything other than communication, I wouldn’t understand. The tools that enable you to make it suggest communication with a crew, you have to be able to talk to your crew and talk to different people and all that in a hierarchical framework. And it’s about communication in the sense that you’re going to produce something that’s going to be seen and, we hope, understood by people that you don’t know. And I’ve noticed one thing while I’ve been in London, which is that the film doesn’t have the same meaning as when it’s shown in my country, but what I’m astonished about each time is that still something has been communicated and I find that really moving.
Can we ask you about the depressive state that you were in? How did film help bring you out of that?
That’s what I’m saying: today I have a clearer vision because I think what defines a depressive person is that he no longer sees anything. At the time I was a script writer, and had been for 10 or 12 years, and fundamentally deep down I wasn’t satisfied. Why? Because the life of a script writer is very solitary, and I found myself fallen in a hole. And really, to go from the situation where I was talking only to myself to talking to more than two people per day was very helpful. I got better. Although not completely…
We’re interested in the preparation that goes into a film like this and whether you had a specific style in mind for how you wanted to shoot the film or was it a case of once you’re on location, the space itself dictates the style?
Actually, first of all you know that it’s all a set?
So that’s the answer to your question. But to be more precise, I wouldn’t have had the authorisation to film in a French prison – it would have been impossible. But if I had been given the opportunity I wouldn’t have taken it; I would have built a set. It’s a solid set, we did it to scale using prison materials. Normally you want the advantages of the set, so you could say, ‘Let’s film in the cell,’ but we could move the cell wall so we can get the shot. We had the cells built in a real way so we couldn’t move the wall, except that it was an object of cinema. Even though the space did dictate certain things, had it been a real location there would have been a dictatorship of what I could do. I knew I wanted to film specific points of view – what did I see from the cell? What did a corridor look like? The stairs? The courtyards? We were the ones deciding the drama.
Take a film like Hunger for instance, which was shot on location in the Maze, and you can feel the weight of history in the walls – there’s a texture you get from that on screen. You risked losing that.
It’s childish to go from a starting point that the set, in the case of Hunger, is going to certify the quality of the film or the aesthetic project. A similar journey is a step that I’m not interested in taking.
One of the risks you run is that you heroise El Djebena – is that perhaps why you show the ghost of his victim? To ensure we don’t sympathise with him too much?
Yes and no. I could talk about how we came to this idea of a ghost that would not normally appear in such a film. You’re right: it could indeed be to remind you of the guilt that he has, but also that he is a ‘good’ ghost. You can see it in two different ways – that he is there to de-dramatise, to remind us but it is also taken as read that he is there. What it is really is that he is a character to whom the authors have given an interiority, and that’s not usual. Tony Montana in Scarface has no interiority. I don’t know what his nights are like, what he dreams. Maybe I wouldn’t even have any desire to know what goes on.
We also wanted to ask you about Abdel Raouf Dafri. With this and Mesrine recently, both touch on Arab racism. Is that still a hot button topic?
Absolutely. France has indeed a problem of integration. Those populations at one point were part of an empire, so if you go through them in the right order Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco. It seems mad now but Algeria was a French département like any other département, like Ile de France around Paris. Algerians are considered pure French. Society has difficulty in integrating them. But for me the fact that I make a film like A Prophet is because the cinema nowadays no longer resembles what I see in the street, so that’s what we should do. And why this genre of film? Because it produces a democratic effect. It produces figures that are going to be accepted by everyone. If I’d done a documentary and filmed Arabs as Arabs sociologically and culturally defined, I’m creating an Arab hero, but first and foremost I’m creating a hero. As if all the problems are solved and now there’s nothing left but genre films and territories.
If anything the film reminded us of Il Divo – it’s a political thriller. Do you see it that way?
It’s strange because we were asking ourselves this question, rather lightly, of what would be El Djebena’s future in A Prophet 2. And with the profile he has, I imagine things, and his relationship with the whole kind of gangster society is very ambiguous. And I totally can imagine him as a local elected member of office. First of all!
Malik El Djebena tyfyt