Jacques Audiard is the best French writer-director most Americans have never heard of. His new picture, "A Prophet," is poised to change that.
Made with the filmmaker's trademark emotional intensity and ability to elevate traditional genre material to exceptional heights, "A Prophet" is the most universally admired work of the Cannes Film Festival's opening week.
Audiard's pictures have always been highly regarded in France -- his "Read My Lips" won three Cesars -- but even here there is the sense that this complex story of a young Arab man's coming of age and into power during six years inside a corrupt, brutal prison is in a class of its own.
Son of the highly respected writer and director Michel Audiard, Jacques Audiard in person is a man of great personal force and focus who smokes a pipe and dresses in a smart, casual manner, including soft corduroy pants, socks with horizontal stripes and a battered white straw hat worn at a stylish angle.
Of filmmaking, he says "It exhausts me" like he means it. He's made only five films in 15 years, including the wonderful "A Self-Made Hero" (1996) and the recent "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" (2005), and he wants to pick up the pace.
"The next one has to be quicker," he says. "If you make one every three or four years, each time is like the first time. I'd like it to be routine, so there would be a little more pleasure than fear when I start. Pleasure is undeniably better."
"A Prophet's" script, which he and Thomas Bidegain rewrote, was submitted to him by a producer, the first of his films to begin that way.
"It spoke of things which interested me, the whole jail environment," the director says. "I had just presented 'The Beat That My Heart Skipped' to a prison cinema club, and that sparked my interest in that world."
"A Prophet" also spoke to Audiard's long-standing interest in what he calls "self-education, the building of someone's character." The film's protagonist, Malik El Djebena, "starts out as sort of a blank page and gradually rediscovers his origins and his identity. His path is very long, but geographically speaking he only goes from one prison building to another."
The serendipity that marked how Audiard got the screenplay extended to how the film was cast. Though Niels Arestrup, who plays the terrifying Corsican crime lord who runs the prison, was in Audiard's previous film, the director met Tahar Rahim, who plays Malik, when they shared an automobile ride from another film set.
"I looked at him and that was that, though I didn't trust my instincts and auditioned 40 other actors before I chose him," the director says with a laugh. "When I looked into his eyes there was no melancholy, no tragedy, just someone very open, very light, very full of life."
To insure the authenticity of the prison experience that would turn Malik inside out, Audiard ended up hiring former convicts, "the only people who know about prisons," as advisors and extras. "For scenes in corridors, I'd just ask them to act naturally. When we had to stage fights, they would say, 'That's not very realistic, that's not how it's done.'"
Though Audiard generously credits the actors with providing the film's intensity, it's clear that he has a role as well. "If I ask my actors to bare themselves, to reveal themselves as almost naked, I have to bare myself, expose myself as well. That's what creates excitement."
Audiard lays claim to having "post-traumatic amnesia" after his shoots are finished, but he recently got a glimpse of what he goes through when he saw excerpts from a "making-of" featurette about "A Prophet."
"I didn't recognize myself, I didn't recognize my voice, I looked like a possessed madman, an African witch doctor," he says a bit ruefully. "I don't want my kids to see it."
The filmmaker is especially astute when he talks about the reasons he works with genre material so often.
"What interests me about genre is that the public connects immediately with it, it has certain rules, certain codes the audience recognizes," Audiard explains. "I can use that to create something very big," an aim which for "A Prophet" includes "creating icons, images for people who don't have images, the Arabs in France."
"I like that it's a popular form of cinema with mass appeal," the director continues. "Art cinema aspects and elements can be inserted and reach the widest audience."
Which is exactly what Audiard's done with "A Prophet," to memorable effect.