🎬 #19 Audiard's Violent, Beautiful, Men.
A favourite director is a tough question or even thing to have. At best you can think of a list of names. But there are just too many interesting people out there making films. If you give it proper thought the list unfurls, as you think of one name that reminds you of another and so on - suddenly it’s an avalanche of names. And why do you even need to have one?
The thing about Jacques Audiard is that he’s one of those filmmakers that sneaks up on you. You watch one of his films and think - that was great, then another and you’re thinking that was good too and so on. But you’d maybe never think of him if someone asked you the question, even as the names unfurled.
But here I am, about to tell you to watch, not one, but two of his films and I never thought I’d do that for anyone except Denis Villeneuve.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED
2005 Dir Jacques Audiard
A remake of an American film from 1978, ‘Fingers,’ the central character here is Thomas Seyr - Audiard’s masculine hero. Intense, violent, but also caring and vulnerable. He’s a romantic at heart but functioning in a role largely established by his father’s crime-ridden real estate business. He has to put on the face of a tough guy, don the leather jacket and use his hands to reek revenge and squeeze money out of people that owe his father.
But then at night, he puts those hands to delicate, beautiful use - by practicing piano. A skill nurtured by his mother and one that is brought to the fore again when a chance meeting with an old family friend reawakens his desire to pursue a career as a professional pianist.
Audiard plunges us right into the story, not setting anything up but instead letting us catch-up with things as they happen. He has the confidence to just let things be and make us feel like we’re discovering this world and getting to know Thomas for ourselves.
I like to think of Audiard as a poetic McTiernan. More impressionistic, more feeling. His stories usually hinge around or emerge from a few key moments of violence/ action but the men who are the lead characters aren’t just straight tough guys. He paints them in tones, with a lot of heart. But that doesn’t mean they are just good guys caught up in a bad world. They take pleasure in their underworld dealings, just as much as they revel in the ‘better angels of our nature.’ Even as they grow tired of their circumstances, they find pleasure in both. The duelling sides of man. Thomas is looking to better himself but there is always the darkness there, pulling him back to the other half of the world he knows.
This struggle between his two sides, one from his mother and the other from his father is what fuels the drama. The internal conflict rendered masterfully in physical form. The brutality of a fist to the face VS the poignancy of a perfectly timed keystroke.
Audiard’s style is similar to Bigelow’s - he doesn’t let the camera get in the way of where the story wants to go, he lets the action dictate it. He has his flourishes that are more overtly ‘art house’ - vignetting the frame to peephole size and jittery slow motion, but he is a master of getting a story up and going and never letting up. Like his male protagonists, he is a director of two sides - the brutality of the crime film mixed with the high art of cinema.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 48 mins of my precious life watching this? Audiard guides us into the world of Seyr, a tough guy who loves piano and wants nothing more than to play it well - but he can’t seem to shake the lure of the gangster underworld he is born from.
*Available for a small rental fee on Curzon.
Fact: Features a small role played by Melanie Laurent who would rise to international attention in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds a few years later.
FILM TWO: A PROPHET
2009 Dir Jacques Audiard
Audiard would follow-up four years later with A Prophet. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes the year it was released - this film is an incredible expansion on the themes he established in The Beat That My Heart Skipped. At the centre of the story, played by Tahir Rahim, is Malik, a 19 year old who is serving six years in prison. Rahim is almost in every single frame and his portrayal of the ‘will to power’ of the naive/illiterate inmate is amazing to behold. Like Seyr, Malik is a divided man. At once beholden to the Corsican ruler of the prison - Cesar [played by Niels Arestrup who played the father in The Beat That My Heart Skipped] he is neither a part of their group, nor the other muslim side of the prison. He sits by himself, an outsider, a loner.
He arrives wanting to keep to himself and serve his time in relative peace. But the violence of the prison world requires him to call upon his violent side and this is the spark that feeds the fire of his ambition. Once direction-less, he now understands the role he can play, and how he can craft a life he never had outside. Like Seyr there is a compassionate heart in Malik. We can’t help but feel sorry for him, trapped in the situation he finds himself in. We root for him as he makes every step up the ladder, in fact, it’s only because of this mix, his tender side and his criminal cunning that he is able to ascend from no one to someone and we maintain our empathy for him throughout.
He transforms before our very eyes and like Seyr, he is neither totally of his violent world or of his inner, more, delicate one. He straddles both sides of himself and the prison. Between the Corsicans and the Muslims, between violence and heart, all the while this conflict fuels his ambition to escape from his ruler. In a way, like Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, it took Malik going to prison to really become a hardcore criminal. The environment transforms him for better or worse.
A perfect example of the poetic McTiernan at work is a heart-stoppingly tense moment involving a razor hidden in Malik’s mouth or a shoot out that plays almost as a mediative, dream-like reverie.
Audiard captures this powerful duality everywhere he can - a violent attack on the only person who actually showed any kindness, a character who escapes prison but can’t escape the illness in his own body and an illiterate central character who speaks all the languages in the prison.
This is a crime intimate and epic, a story of a man’s transformation through sheer will power. Hopefully if you watch both you will see why Edward Norton called Audiard’s trio of films [paraphrasing] ‘the best three films made in a row in the last 30 years.’ A trio starting with The Beat That My Heart Skipped and ending with Rust and Bone.
If I could recommend three films in the newsletter this week - Rust and Bone would be the third.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hrs 35 mins of my precious life watching this? Audiard’s masterful tale of reluctant transformation will leave you wondering why more ‘gangster’ films can’t be this beautiful.
*Available for free on Virgin Go and Studio Canal and for a small rental fee on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV, Sky Store and Curzon.
Fact: Audiard was inspired to make this film after screening one of his films in a French prison.