Helen Donlon reviews …
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Written by Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audiard
Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Hichem Yacoubi
Every now and again a body of work appears that seems to stand apart from everything else out there, and to feel very much part of the here and now. France is a country that regularly produces world class writer/directors, and for my money Jacques Audiard may be the most exciting name to have appeared in French cinema circles for the last few years.
Son of renowned scriptwriter Michel Audiard, he’s become the most talked about French director this year because of the huge critical success of his hard but even-handed look at life within France’s increasingly notorious prison system in his latest film, A Prophet (Un prophète, 2009).
Audiard fils started out following in his father’s footsteps, writing his first film script in 1974 while still in his early twenties. He also got some good grounding in the editing department, working as an editor on Polanski’s cult classic, The Tenant (1976), for one. He has chalked up over 20 cinema writing credits to date, and since 1994 has directed five feature films. With each release his reputation as a judicious storyteller swells. His films feature schismatic anti-heroes, mostly male characters whose lives are played out through flourishes of spontaneous brutality, the ever present threat of violence and tenebrous whereabouts. There’s humour and sensitivity to his touch, but it’s of the darker variety. Themes of purpose and pursuit are often set up within a framework of circumstance, realism and uncomfortable negotiations.
His directorial kickoff, See How They Fall (Regarde les hommes tomber, 1994) based on Teri White’s psychological thriller, Triangle, promisingly won him a César for best first film, and won Mathieu Kassovitz a César for most promising actor. The film drew comparisons to his father’s work, notably in the sharp and often witty dialogues. His next film, A Self Made Hero (Un héros très discret 1996) took best screenplay at Cannes for its wry depiction of the self-deception inherent in peoples’ often embellished mythologies of the Resistance. Kassovitz reappeared in this, along with veteran actor Jean-Louis Trintingnant who also starred in both this and See How They Fall.
Audiard went on to write Vénus beauté (institut) with Tonie Marshall before releasing his next film, Read My Lips (Sur mes lèvres, 2001). This was followed by the lauded The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté, 2005), and most recently, A Prophet.
Proclaimed by The Times to be “as epic as The Godfather”, A Prophet is a landslide critical victory march for Audiard. Recipient of the Grand Prix at Cannes, Best Film at the London Film Festival, two of the European Film Awards, two Lumières, the London Critics circle Film of the Year and now nine Césars, it’s continuing to pick up awards all over the place, including at the BAFTAs where it outmanouevred Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon to get Best Film in a foreign language. The BFI has just run a retrospective of Audiard’s films (as director and/or writer). The star of A Prophet, relative newcomer Tahar Rahim has himself been the recipient of several of these awards, and deservedly so.
Rahim plays the 19 year old Malik El Djebena, who is serving a six year prison sentence for a crime that’s never really explained or questioned. He arrives an illiterate and somewhat naïve boy, but after learning to read and write and getting involved with a gang of Corsican gangsters, he rises through the prison ranks and comes out a seasoned villain. Basically.
The prison setting of the film, carefully constructed on a set with several rooms is presumed by many to be based on France’s notorious Fleury- Mérogis, the largest prison in Europe. Audiard was not expecting the political tremors that accompanied the film’s release though. He simply thought, after a screening he gave of an earlier film to a group of inmates that a prison would be a great setting for a film. There was no political intent, or any desire to provoke debate beyond a cinematic context.
28 year old Tahar Rahim steps inside the character of young Malik so well. Audiard discovered Rahim while watching Abdel Raouf Dafri’s cult french TV series La commune, in which he plays a chary junior hood. He and Audiard ended up sharing a car journey one day when Audiard was visiting Dafri (who also wrote the original idea for A Prophet). Rahim was already a huge fan of Audiard and when the director called him in to audition for the part of Malik he threw himself into it.
Rahim manages to capture an intense guilelessness combined with a sensitive awareness of his version of right and wrong, in his role as Malik. He also has that Mediterranean look that can easily position him as anything from an Arab to a southern Italian, thereby making him perfect for the role of someone who switches allegiances between the Corsicans and the Arabs throughout the film. He’s at the centre of every scene, and his locus is as perpetually lonesome as it is increasingly well-connected.
Most of the film is set inside the prison itself. So not only do we get to see the daily grind, but also how egos and boundaries get to work within the restrictions of the prison walls. Predictably, and like any other social microcosm, it’s Lord of the Flies. The guards and other prison workers are presented as threadbare characters on the whole, or else as good little footsoldiers to the powerful jailbirds, i.e. the Corsicans. All the emotion though is in the eyes of the inmates.
Audiard cleverly used convicts as advisors and extras for authenticity on set. Malik’s gestures on arrival, trotting along in line with his things – his linens, his food tray, his unsteady gait – keep our eyes on him, hoping he’s ok. His body language plays softly softly, humble, fearful, tight jawed, and he avoids eye contact with the other inmates. Where he’s come from we don’t know, but the scars on his left cheek and all across his back are shadows across our first impressions.
In an early scene he is bagged in the exercise yard by two inmates who demand his trainers from him, eventually wrestling them off his feet when he refuses to give them up. Undeterred, he lashes out at them, although he doesn’t stand a chance. But given this and a few subsequent violent episodes, it’s clear he’s no fraidy-cat when it comes to matters of the fist.
Another snare for me is the presence of the goodly Niels Arestup, who played the washed-up despondent playboy manqué father in The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Born to play wrong ‘uns, in A Prophet he renders the part of César Luciani, capo of the Corsican yardbirds, as if to the manner born. His sighing body exudes as heavy a presence as it ever did in this demanding role.
Luciani is domineering, majestic and quietly confident. As soon as he’s introduced to the plot we know the score. He calls a meeting with one of the prison guards, in a room clearly marked non-smoking, lights a cigarette and discusses his impending plans for the liquidation of a disturbing and familiar new Arab, with the guard, in Italian.
As with his role in Audiard’s previous film, Arestrup moves his body through scenarios at his own pace, a pace that seemed endlessly detrimental to him in the earlier film, but which gives a certain grandeur to his conch-clenching position in A Prophet. He’s Marlon Brando as reshuffled by Dogme, and his appearance is considerably more meticulous and well groomed as a banged up Corsican racketeer than it was as a theoretically free man in Paris in The Beat That My Heart Skipped.
Like all of Audiard’s films, A Prophet is often dimly lit, with very little sense of warmth, no matr what the season. Where there is warmth it is made of blood, sweat or tears. Even the one scene filmed on a Marseille beach is hardly dazzling. The grimness of neon lit administration rooms or cold carpets of snow in the prison yard only help underscore the nip of prison life. Depth of field is often redundant in his films, which when combined with his lighting preferences helps to create a specific tension: often claustrophic, sometimes apathetic. Grungy. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s formalist colour specifications and antsy hand held camerawork leave a very distinct mark, as do Michel Barthélémy’s stark production design and signature composer Alexandre Desplat’s original score.
The film is at times like a documentary, letting the viewer engage objectively rather than being route marched into any moral judgments on the various characters and factions. Hierarchies are insisted upon in the prison but there are plenty of loners, and everyone is on the hustle. The reigning prepossession within these walls is race/religion/national identity.
A Prophet deals with the ongoing clash between the Corsicans (in shades of Union Corse, the notoriously powerful and secretive mafia behind the ‘french connection’) and the ever growing Arab/Muslim contingent. The divisions are mostly evident in the scenes that take place in the yard. To the Arabs, Malik is a Corsican pig, to the Corsicans he’s an Arab dog. The film really points up the clannish tingle inside the prison, mirroring the unholy mess on the underside of French social identity. Once Malik learns to understand a bit of Corsican, Luciani places a lot more trust in him. Despite the fact both men speak French, on the inside identity becomes a flesh and blood issue, and by extension language becomes a mark of either identity or respect. Malik speaks a little Corsican to Luciani, or to himself, alone in his cell at night, when he tries to affect Luciani’s cavalier tone and gestures. He speaks Arabic to win the trust of other Arabs, and French to everyone else. Luciani and his posse talk in Corsican to each other, and he talks Italian with the prison guard he has bought.
Because of his innate humility, Malik takes most things that happen to him on the chin. Vengeance for all the abuse he has to put up with from other inmates is often slow burning and he is, in any case, an unlikely honcho. He navigates his time by instinct and listening, and when opportunity knocks, he is quick to protect his interests both in and out of the cooler. Even after the most savage scene of the film, in which he commits the sanguinary act that both propels him to learn to read and write and triggers a haunting that will follow him around for the rest of the film, I couldn’t help but empathise with his position, precisely because of the unconditional terms under which he has been placed by Luciani. When we see him as the lonely boy, consumed and deeply unsettled in his cell afterwards, it becomes clear that Audiard wanted to create a character to whom his audience could grant clemency. Malik’s moral compass doesn’t concern him, or us. Malik’s prospect and survival however, do.
Helen Donlon – London Grip’s Film & Sound Contributing Editor
Helen Donlon is the founder of Storm Agency and is the author of According to … David Lynch (a selection of his finest quotes)