Dir: Lars Von Trier | Year: 2011 | Cert: 15 | Country: Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany
Running Time: 136 mins | With: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland
…This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.
The City of Dreadful Night, James Thomson, 1874
As a literary prelude to Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, The City of Dreadful Night by Scottish poet James Thomson could have been written by the controversial director himself, over a century later. (Visitors to London during August’s riots this year might yet find a degree of truth in Thomson’s bleak title and outlook towards the capital). Neither men were strangers to depression, the directorial imprint for much of Von Trier’s condition is similarly apparent within the darker elements of Breaking The Waves (1996) and more recently Antichrist (2009).
In revealing more than just a empty interpretation of London’s sprawling metropolis, Thomson hinted at the hopelessness of the human condition itself. The idea that death alone can provide oblivion to all inherent suffering endured in life is a notion that Kirsten Dunst’s character, Justine, brings startingly to Von Trier’s film Melancholia.
Attempting to decipher the plot is unhelpful as we very quickly learn the entire premise of the film anyway. Amid the mother of all plot spoilers, the opening scene depicts the blue planet Melancholia, a narrative and wider metaphorical device for Dunst’s own psychological devastation, smashing catastrophically into Earth just as it will by the closing credits; Justine forseeing the final moments of humanity in a sequence awash with beautiful, extended, swooning Wagner-scored images. And yet despite all, the film still works; namely through the narrative tension developed in Part Two as we head expectantly towards the doom-laden finale.
The dismantling of romantic rituals in Part One of the film is a direct nod to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998), the first of the Dogme95 films. We follow the wedding reception of Justine’s marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) within a separate, distinct segment from the impending disaster yet to follow in Part Two. Yet here Von Trier plays a significantly weaker hand. The remainder of the wedding reception seem impervious to the drama unfolding before them. Much of the characterisation doesn’t hold together such as the Groom’s curious choice of Jack as Best Man, Justine’s career driven, overbearing and significantly older boss (played by Stellan Skarsgård) unless we are to assume that the role embodies father and son (though the relationship is unimplied anywhere else).
As a resistance of film makers to ever powerful Hollywood studios, Dogme95 swore a ‘vow of chastity’ to only produce pictures through natural lighting, handheld camera and zero special effects (to name but a few). Von Trier was co-author of the original manifesto along with Vinterberg, and the wedding section of Melancholia signposts Dogme95′s trademark febrile camera and jump cuts. Nevertheless, as the later computer generated images of planetary collision demonstrate, he has long since departed from the club. Perhaps it is significant that Von Trier since expressed disappointment at the final special effects depicting Earth’s destruction in the finished production of the film. There is no doubt that given his directorial history of making dark, pessimistic pictures, Melancholia could have cut even deeper, and the visual brilliance of the second act very much dilutes the bleak message of the piece. Whilst there is no material evidence to substantiate the possibility of Von Trier unintentionally wrong footing himself in the film’s directorial design, Melancholia is arguably the richer for it.
Still, while Thomson’s 1874 poem was well received in the literary circles of the time, winning acclaim from several leading English novelists, Von Trier’s film continues to garner mixed reviews today. Many critics seem to be missing the point, his pessimism is challenging us, we should be asking, why do we exist at all, why does anything exist?
George Saintbury wrote of The City of Dreadful Night that “what saves Thomson is the perfection with which he expresses the negative and hopeless side of the sense of mystery …” the same could be equally said of Von Trier.
Despite his empty perception of human existence, Melancholia offers up a certain lyricism in the way any of us attempt to make sense of life and death. In doing so, Lars Von Trier can bring you cinematic moments not easily forgotten.
♦ Recommended ♦
Dir: Asif Kapadia | Year: 2010 | Cert: 12A | Country: UK
Running Time: 106 mins
In the late Eighties, many of us Brits may fondly recall lazy summer Sundays spent in the garden with family and visiting relatives over for the day. Patio doors left open facilitated access to the kitchen inside. They occasionally revealed the sound of whining Grand Prix motor cars from the living room telly adjacent; a source of background entertainment in the unlikely event you had ventured indoors for something other than a refill. The point is that Formula One was for the gross majority then, and remains for many of us still, an exercise in background entertainment whether we have heard of three times Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, or not.
When I was given the opportunity to direct Senna, I decided the film had to work for audiences who disliked sport, or had never seen a Formula One race in their lives. It had to thrill and emotionally engage people who had never heard of Ayrton Senna.
The immediate success of Asif Kapadia’s recent sports documentary, Senna, is that the piece successfully appeals to more than just than your average Formula One motorhead, but may have just have swelled their ranks in doing so. As the compelling story of an exceptionally gifted individual at the height of his powers, it is unrivalled in documentary film making over recent years. As an insight into the working history of the Formula One machine, with all its politics, money and corruption, it is equally engrossing, and yet the sport of motor racing, just as it might have appeared previously in your Eighties living room, essentially plays a supporting role to a far bigger event.
Kapadia’s decision to entirely employ archive footage of Senna is the masterstroke here, with the Brazilian driver eerily narrating his own life story for the most part. The material research has been meticulous, as it had to in constructing an entirely ‘source documentary’ pieced together from recorded film taken over twenty years ago. Numerous home videos, Grand Prix races, interviews and news coverage all contribute to building a real sense of Ayrton Senna the man – a contrasting amalgam of playboy celebrity, religious faith, social conscience and dogged determination.
I had a rule with the film: if we can’t show it, we can’t put it in. Fortunately, Senna was constantly followed by a camera at the height of his fame: whether it was Globo TV from Brazil, Fuji from Japan, his brother’s VHS camera or the Formula One crews. Rather than shooting it, we scripted it and then sent word to our researchers in London, Japan and Rio to find the shots to fit.
The resulting film retains the feel of gripping real life drama unfolding before your very eyes, rather than the familiar convention of reflective, posthumous documentary (see June’s Bobby Fischer Against The World post). Moments of real pathos present themselves in the simplest of interview, such as when Senna reveals his hopes for the future after winning the Formula One Championship for the third time (Kapadia’s choice of Giles Peterson score works brilliantly here), barely three years from tragedy upon the track at Imola.
There is a great desire in me of improving. Getting better. That makes me happy….Maybe I’m only at the half of my life right now, so there is a lot to go, a lot to learn, a lot to do still in life. And happiness will come when I feel complete as a whole, which definitely I don’t feel today. But I have plenty of time to fulfill that, too.
Ayrton Senna interview post-1991 World Championship win, Senna (2010)
Scenes such as these are as heartbreaking as they are eery in the context of prior knowledge about a young life cut short, and sound a sad footnote to lost potential.
Formula One fans will no doubt have something to say about the negative depiction of technology advancements at Williams which seemingly explain away Senna’s latter championship failures at the hands of Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. However the Frenchman, who appears to win titles by accumulating points over podium finishes, had friends in higher places (step aside Sepp Blatter, all marvel at former F1 chief, Jean-Marie Balestre) and is merely a necessary pantomine villain for the piece. Kapadia addresses this with later footage of the Frenchman bearing his former team mate’s coffin at the funeral, and a final mission statement during the closing credits reveals Prost as a trustee of the Senna foundation. Likewise the early inclusion of Prost’s wonderful Selina Scott interview is surely significant in balancing opinion.
The extended footage of Senna sitting in his car during the final hours of his life accord the film a doom-laden tension as his sister Viviane tells of his doubts the morning of the race, touching on the spiritual in her moving account of how he had asked God to talk to him.
He opened the Bible and read a passage which said that God would give him the greatest of all gifts. Which was God himself.
Senna’s sister, Viviane, recalls her brother’s last morning, Senna (2010)
The immediacy of Kapidia’s approach ultimately proves as exhilarating as the final in-car camera sequence prior to the crash itself. Although the discernable benefit of an extraordinary wealth of archive footage available, Senna recalls documentary film making to challenge mainstream cinema.
♦ Recommended ♦
Dir: Liz Garbus | Year: 2011 | Cert: PG | Country: USA
Running Time: 92 mins
Bobby Fischer – the name is ingrained in chess folklore whether you care for E4 openings or not, and for those of us who take more than just an interest in chess en passant, Fischer still stands as probably the greatest player of them all.
No other master has such a terrific will to win. At the board he radiates danger, and even the strongest opponents tend to freeze, like rabbits, when they smell a panther. Even his weaknesses are dangerous. As white, his opening is predictable – you can make plans against it – but so strong that your plans almost never work. In middle game his precision and invention are fabulous, and in the end game you simply cannot beat him.
Brad Darrach, Life Magazine, 12 November 1971
A grandmaster at fifteen, Fischer began learning Russian just so he could immerse himself in the wealth of their chess literature, a country that had produced an uninterrupted line of world champions as far back as 1927, and for as long as 1970. At the height of his fame, the American defeated Russia’s Boris Spassky in the 1972 Chess World Championships in Reykjavik to finally end this sequence, during a series of games that seemed to embody the Cold War struggle itself. Yet by the end, he was seeing out his days in self-imposed isolation, ostracizing the few friends left to him through growing bitterness, paranoia and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Liz Garbus’ new documentary film, Bobby Fischer Against The World, lays bare the extent of the chess prodigy’s rise and fall for the first time, a feat impossible prior to his death in 2008. Whilst alive, Fischer’s few remaining friends were unwilling to fuel his wrath further by providing even the most basic of backgrounds demanded by biography. And through his violent outbursts in occasional live interviews – he hailed the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center as “wonderful news” from his exile in the Philippines – the public’s perception of an anti-American, anti-Jewish lunatic who used to play chess, gradually overshadowed the golden memories of Reykjavik.
Garbus has stated that she intended the 1972 Spassky games in Iceland to form the narrative spine of the piece.
At this juncture, the film excels in delivering rare archive footage of the match amid the beautiful photographs provided by Harry Benson, the photographer whom Fischer allowed close to him during the trip because he didn’t care to talk about chess.
With its assured analysis of Game 6, Bobby Fischer Against The World finally finds its voice in describing how Fischer played one of the most beautiful middle games in chess history to secure the win, and the applause of even Spassky himself.
Just as fascinatingly, all the significant political, social and cultural implications are examined in interviews with figures in and outside the chess world such as Garry Kasparov, Susan Polgar, Dr. Anthony Saidy, and the late Larry Evans. However, the attempt to adopt narrative centre ground within the chronological confines of a biography blunts the purpose of the piece, although Garbus attempts to address the problem in reconciling Fischer’s world chess victory as the catalyst for his subsequent descent into madness and paranoia.
…When we were going out to make this film about Bobby Fischer, people wanted to know: “Is he a saint or a sinner? What portrait are you making of him?” And I said, “I’m listening to you. I’m not making a portrait. I’m not making him a [saint or a] sinner. I’m listening to all the stories and putting them all together and finding a truth in all their differences and all their agreements.
In this spirit, Bobby Fischer Against The World retains the feel of supplying evidence for trial without ever summing it up; as interesting as a well researched press publication might have been into Fischer’s life, but nothing more.
Where is the passion for chess itself? The possibility that public imagination could have been fired through this documentary as it was in 1972 when crowds of Europeans and Americans huddled in bars to catch the latest games, playing each other in cafes with their own boards in support of Fischer, surely represents an opportunity missed.
There does not appear to be any greater meaning to the story of Bobby Fischer in documenting his illegal 1992 Spassky rematch in Yugoslavia, those final miserable years of asylum in Iceland or a personal examination within the context of human psychology.
Bobby Fischer is a genius of the game whose legacy should always remain in the magical chess that he brought us. The final seconds of the film prior to the credits – a broad celebration of the game and how Fischer popularized it – demonstrate that Garbus did at some level understand this. But in the end if you show everything, sometimes you show nothing at all.
Bobby Fischer Against The World is released into UK cinemas on 15th July.
♦ Recommended ♦
Dir: Lukas Moodysson | Year: 2000 | Cert: 15 | Country: Sweden
Running Time: 106 mins | With: Lisa Lindgren, Michael Nyqvist, Emma Samuelsson
‘Children should be seen but not heard’ is a parenting philosophy from Victorian times, the draconian idea that quiet, obedient kids are somehow superior in some sense. Watching a baby faced Gaby Hoffmann condescend to a considerably older (but no less baby faced) Tom Hanks in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) this week, the notion suddenly struck me as the perfect antidote to most child acting in Nineties Hollywood comedies – remove all sound.
There is something quite unnerving about an overly assured eight year old – “H.and G.” Jessica chirps breezily at her friend’s father, Sam, and this their first meeting. “Hello and Goodbye”, she elaborates witheringly as Hanks stares blankly back. Is this Ephron’s take on cuteness? Hoffman also starred in John Hughes’ Uncle Buck (1989), alongside probably the most recognisable child box office champion of them all, Macaulay Culkin. Perhaps his rapid rise to stardom in Home Alone (1993) convinced her that smug sophistication was the way to go.
So what makes a child’s acting performance, actually any good? Aside from the director’s interpretation of how children should credibly present themselves, child actors (like any actor) can only work with what they are given. Consider that Adrien Brody remains the youngest Best Actor Academy Award winner at 29 years old for The Pianist (2002) – hardly a spring chicken – and Marlee Matlin aged 21, Best Actress for her part as Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God (1986), and it suggests that children are seldom entrusted with leading roles in mainstream cinema.
Natalie Portman’s Mathilda in Leon (1994), or more recently still, Hailee Steinfeld’s superb performance of Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake of Harry Hathaway’s True Grit are notable exceptions, and yet the parts themselves demanded an uncharacteristic level of adult responsibility in children of relatively tender years.
There is a scene in True Grit when LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) administers a spanking to Mattie Ross for ignoring his insistence to stay away from the Tom Chaney manhunt. I found myself wondering whether the Coens were simply trying to readdress the balance.
What is rarer (and arguably more compelling drama), is when a role actually captures a child’s unique takes on life – in all its innocence, vulnerability, sometimes naievity. More often than not, a youthful grasp of events is far closer to pinpointing what really lies at the heart of a matter, and the picture is all the more powerful for it (see the Dekalog: Part 1 clip in our Film Stream page).
Lukas Moodysson’s masterstroke in Together (Tillsammans, 2000), his second feature film set in a 1970s Swedish hippie colony, rests in an understated ability to gently elicit the point of view of the children. Dumped into a curious environment of free love, pot smoking and washing up rotas when their Mum walks out on her abusive husband Rolf (Michael Nyqvist in his pre-The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo days), the performances from Emma Samuelsson (Eva) and Sam Kessel (Stefan) are uniformly excellent, bringing a restless energy and bewildered enlightenment that expose the inner workings of the hippies’ folly, without dissuading us of their best intentions. Moodysson’s 1998 debut, Fucking Amal (retitled Show Me Love by conservative UK distributors), was hailed as “a young master’s first masterpiece” by Ingmar Bergman – still the benchmark that all Swedish directors are judged upon – and Together is the genuine heartwarming comedy, applying the warmth without the feeling that you are ever being worked on. The wonderful scene in which Tet (Axel Zuber) and Stefan (Sam Kessel) take it in turns to ‘play Pinochet’ embodies the spirit of the title, whilst the children’s rejection of the hippie message (“this house is full of bad music and ugly clothes” says Eva), reinforces the idea that the child-adult generation gap will forever be fraught with tension.
With films like these, there is no need to live without sound.
♦ Recommended ♦
Dir: Ron Shelton | Year: 1992 | Cert: 15 | Country: USA
Running Time: 115 mins | With: Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Rosie Perez
Releasing a mainstream comedy stereotyping not only white but black Californians, during a time of potential racial tension in Los Angeles, would make most film studios nervous. Incredibly, White Men Can’t Jump, Ron Shelton’s basketball follow-up to his previous baseball picture, Bull Durham, didn’t deter Twentieth Century Fox, airing at U.S cinemas just four weeks before the 1992 Los Angeles Riots on April 29th (the subsequent civil unrest was flamed by a U.S jury’s acquittal of four white police officers charged with use of excessive force against Rodney King, a black civilian, one year prior).
Just as incredibly, the film grossed over fourteen million dollars in its opening weekend at the U.S box office, and went onto gross over ninety million dollars worldwide. A sports comedy-come-buddy movie set across Watts, Venice Beach and South Central Los Angeles, Shelton’s story about two basketball hustlers owed its success to the sparkling dialogue and chemistry between central characters Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, who clearly got on during filming, enjoy their basketball and remain firm friends to this day (Harrelson even submitted a glowing character reference in defence of ‘Wes my brother’ at Snipes’s trial last year, during the latter’s subsequent three year sentencing for tax evasion). As Billy Hoyle, Harrelson plays a white ‘chump’ hustler using his college boy, back-to-front cap appearance to con black players into thinking he will be the fool guy in matchups for money. This eventually leads him into an uneasy on-court partnership with Sidney Deane (Snipes) as they take a tour together of the tougher neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, playing other black players for increasingly higher stakes. Their own innate competiveness meanwhile, provide the basis for showing how whites and blacks view each other, as the name of the film suggests.
Whilst the act of swindling opponents who believe a white man could never be a good basketball player hardly represents a serious anti-racist message (in France, however, the title translation of ‘Les blancs ne peuvent pas sauter’ must have raised at least the odd eyebrow; ‘sauter’ can also be used as the colloquial verb ‘to f*ck’), there exists a fundamental, good natured honesty at the heart of the comedy. Assertions such as a black player would rather look good first and win second, or Sidney’s stubborn refusal to believe that Jimi Hendrix’s drummer was in fact white, are merely playfully considered. With both men experiencing similar financial impoverishment and increasing demands from their highly strung women off the court, it is a pity that the film bypassed but could not alleviate the very real racial tensions of the time. But this is essentially about dialogue and basketball, a lighthearted comedy with inconsequential racial undertones.
Since then, White Men Can’t Jump has fallen into the relative obscurity of DVD rental.
Whilst the film is not without its flaws – the impressive court action forms only a small part of an otherwise convoluted script (scenes involving gangters pursuing Billy and Gloria, for example, needlessly unsettle the narrative) – it cannot help but offer up a form of Nineties Nike Air Jordan nostalgia, and what of the relevance there today? For that reason, the film retains slight cult status to a generation of thirty-somethings – the teenage snapshot to past lives on the playground mimicking Rosie Perez’s Hispanic squeaks or ’trash-talking’ each other’s mothers:
“Your momma’s so fat she fell over, broke her leg and gravy poured out.”
Kadeem Hardison, ‘Junior’, White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
No doubt David Anspaugh’s Hoosiers (1986) would top a poll of best picture involving basketball, but White Men Can’t Jump surely scores a worthy second. The treatment of race may be lightweight, but is never false, that wonderful first Venice Beach score offering up a glimpse of racial utopia.
♦ Recommended ♦
Two films about the same chapter of esteemed American writer Truman Capote’s life came out at around the same time in the mid-noughties: Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Douglas McGrath’s Infamous (2006), starring the English actor Toby Jones. They each document the events that led to the writing of In Cold Blood, a ‘non-fiction novel’, as Capote cannily termed it.
The four members of the Clutter family are tied up and murdered with a shotgun in their home in Holcomb, Kansas, in November 1959. Capote is fascinated by the crime from the moment he first reads about it in the New York Times. With his closest friend Nelle Harper Lee in tow (Catherine Keener), he is able to ingratiate himself with the locals, conduct interviews and write up thousands of pages of notes, from which he builds his most celebrated work.
At its heart, as with so many character-pieces, is a connection between two people, in this case Capote, the writer and socialite hungry for his next writing venture, and Perry Smith, one of the men arrested and charged with the murder of the Clutters. Hoffman’s Capote bribes the prison warden to get unlimited access to the two killers, and forges an emotional bond with Smith in particular (Clifton Collins Jr.).
‘Perry, I know what ‘exacerbate’ means. There’s not a word or a sentence or a concept that you can illuminate for me. There is one singular reason I keep coming here. November 14th 1959. Three years ago. Three years. That’s all I wanna hear from you.’
We are led to question, throughout the film, and especially as Capote’s motives become murkier, to what end he is choosing to help these men. There is an intriguing scene between Capote and his partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), during which Truman says he is getting them a lawyer because he needs to hear their stories, and because he wants to see them alive. You’re getting yourself a lawyer, replies Jack.
‘It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house,’ says Capote. ‘And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.’
Capote himself helps Smith and his partner-in-crime Dick Hickock procure expensive criminal lawyers that put the buffers on the convicted killers’ seeming fast-track to the gallows. But his assistance in these matters, aside from whatever his true motivations are, causes him a significant problem that he did not envisage: after four years and a stay of execution from the Supreme Court, he knows, as long as the men languish on death row awaiting their executions, his book has no ending. ‘It’s harrowing,’ he opines. ‘All I want to do is write the ending and there’s no end in sight.’
Capote’s motives for both helping and not helping Smith and Hickock are certainly complex and muddy and tug visibly at the man, which Hoffman conveys extremely well. His performance captures perfectly the mindset of a man who feels very deeply a connection he doesn’t want to come to an end, while simultaneously mining it ruthlessly for his art.
Dan Futterman’s screenplay avoids any hint of a sexual relationship between Capote and Smith, focusing instead on the platonic bond that forms between the two, as one’s biography becomes grist to the other’s mill. Infamous excels in its early comic scenes, but flounders noticeably when the relationship between the two men (here given a sensationalist, overtly sexual twist) takes centre-stage. Miller’s film is more successful because it expertly controls and exploits the tensions in their relationship throughout.
Such tensions are at their most sinewy and interesting when Hoffman’s Capote is forced to lie blatantly to get himself out of a tight spot. ‘What are you calling it?’ Smith asks. ‘The book? I have no idea.’ And later on: ‘How’s the book coming along?’ ‘I’ve hardly written anything.’ The book’s macabre title comes to light, to Smith’s horror, and Capote manages to convince him the organisers of the public reading picked it, then deceives him into thinking his sister is missing him, when in fact she wants nothing more to do with him.
Soon after, Smith finally recounts his version of what happened on the night of the massacre. In Infamous, by contrast, Daniel Craig’s Smith attacks Capote and looks to be about to commit rape to be able to tell him: that’s how you made me feel.
Ultimately the men lose their appeal and Capote visits them to witness their executions. There is a perfectly weighted, devastating scene just prior to the double hangings, of which only Smith’s is shown, when Capote, forced to confront them one final time, tells them: ‘I did everything I could.’ And then, as if to convince himself: ‘I truly did.’
Miller’s film shows Capote quite willing to embellish his own personal history and regale others with any number of tall stories to get what he wants out of them. What stops the character becoming unsympathetic is Hoffman’s skilful, dry-mouthed performance, which manages to be both mannered and free-wheeling. Never short or slight enough to convince physically as the man himself, his approximation is nevertheless thrilling to watch.
Both films make the point that In Cold Blood was the high-point of Capote’s career and also the beginning of the end of his life from alcoholism. We are led to believe that the trials of the In Cold Blood debacle contributed to his sad decline. ‘There wasn’t anything I could’ve done to save them,’ he tells Nelle afterwards. ‘Maybe not; the fact is you didn’t want to,’ replies his no-nonsense friend. The real-life truth of Capote’s relationship with Smith lies behind a veil that Capote himself drew over the issue by removing himself entirely from his book.
A Prophet (Un Prophète)
Dir: Jacques Audiard | Year: 2009 | Cert: 18 | Country: France
Running Time: 150 mins | With: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif
Earlier in April we reviewed Aleksei Popogrebsky’s How I Ended This Summer, a slight psychological thriller that nevertheless earnt itself a UK release later this week. The picture arguably presents a clear, goal-driven narrative amid stunning cinematography and the moody ambience of Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Region. Such is the difficulty of combining arthouse elements with escapism; blending social realism, directorial expression or emphasis on the thoughts and dreams of characters with the required entertainment to reach mainstream audiences.
And yet Jacques Audiard’s fifth feature does just that - A Prophet (Un Prophète, 2009) remains a rare example of genre film-making with an arthouse sensibility, the perfect French film for people who don’t normally like French films.
Despite only five features in 17 years, Audiard’s limited output is not reflective of the quality of his work. In 1996, he made the Resistance film A Self-Made Hero (Un héros très discret) which also plays as a satire on French history, the noir thrillers in Read My Lips (Sur mes lèvres, 2001) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté, 2005), equally effective as character pieces nurturing the hopes and dreams of Emanuelle Devos, Vincent Cassell and Romain Duris respectively.
It takes a lot of time to write and rewrite something. It takes two years to write a screenplay. After that I am always exhausted.
(Jacques Audiard, The Guardian interview with Xan Brooks, Thursday 28 May 2009).
A Prophet is all the more remarkable for casting newcomer Tahar Rahim in the title role. Mainstream cinema demands a signature lead for the billboards; here, Audiard adds authenticity to our narrative whilst firmly occupying the centre ground. The blank canvas provided by Rahim lends credibility to Malik’s entry into prison as a vulnerable nobody without connections. Similarly, his prison life evolves organically without the potential baggage of distraction or an actor’s glittering film career.
To avoid spoiling the plot for those who have not already seen it, A Prophet tells the pulsating tale of Malik’s time behind bars, his battle for survival, the necessity for allegiance within an extremely dangerous environment. Audiard skillfully negotiates the fine line between arthouse character piece and the narrative clarity required for the prison-gangster genre. Scenes developing the relationship between Malik and Corsican gang-boss Luciani (Niels Arestrup), for example, were subsequently deleted because they impaired the flow of the film:-
We felt that the relationship needed to be more complex – in fact the complexity ended up being more awkward then useful…It was as if the pictures were moving along faster than the actual storyline.
(Jacques Audiard commentary, The Guardian, Friday 4 June 2010).
Malik’s ghostly visits from a murdered inmate and his insider/outsider status, together with Audiard’s portrait of a multi-ethnic prison society, mean that the picture can also be viewed as a political commentary on modern-day France. Or a social critique, straight-up crime thriller, religious parable, purely redemptive piece - A Prophet cuts as deep as you want it to.
In a wonderful scene towards the end of the film, Malik meets another mafia boss in Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi), and is told:-
You talk with Muslims, Corsicans, you come here…Straddling everyone. It’s not great on your balls.
Audiard’s greatness lies in this unique ability to straddle genre. It is exhausting but extraordinary work.
♦ Recommended ♦