Director Jacques Audiard has made the first ‘perfect’ film of 2010 with prison drama A Prophet. Tom Dawson meets the man citing American influences such as Scarface, and bringing his own ineffable French cool to proceedings

U nlike his contemporaries Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodovar and Michael Haneke, the name of French director Jacques Audiard carries little arthouse weight for British fans of European cinema. This situation looks likely to change, however, with the release of Audiard’s fifth feature, the superlative crime drama A Prophet. Ever since the two-and-a-half hour epic was unveiled at Cannes last May, where it won the Grand Jury prize, it has received rapturous reviews. At the London Film Festival in October it was awarded the inaugural Best Film award, and the jury president Angelica Huston declared it to be ‘a masterpiece, an instant classic and a perfect film.’

A Prophet is the story of a remarkable transformation. The French Arab protagonist Malik (newcomer Tahar Rahim) is a young illiterate drifter, who has been sentenced to time in a jail, which has effectively been segregated on ethnic lines. There he receives protection from a Corsican gang, headed by the mobster Luciani (Niels Arestup), in return for murdering a fellow inmate. But down the years of confinement, Malik teaches himself to read and write and to speak different languages, and, by maintaining good relations with the Muslim prisoners, he develops his own power base to usurp Luciani. In many ways A Prophet deepens the themes and concerns that have preoccupied Audiard, the son of famous screenwriter and director Michel Audiard, since he made his debut in 1994, with the neo-noir See How They Fall. Drawn to personal variations on the crime genre, he focuses on morally ambiguous male characters, who are struggling to survive in oppressive milieu. In his 2001 thriller Read My Lips for example, Vincent Cassel played an ex-con forced to work in an office, in 2005’s The Beat that My Heart Skipped Roman Duris’ anti-hero is involved in real-estate scams, while in his 1996 breakthrough film A Self Made Hero, Mathieu Kassovitz’s fabulist reinvents himself after WWII as a Resistance hero. Father-son relationships, whether literal or surrogate, are crucial in these tales, yet equally important is the sheer pleasure that Audiard takes in storytelling. Although realistic in many of its details, A Prophet is propelled by stylistic flourishes, not least Malik’s hallucinations of the prisoner he killed, Reyeb, who appears to him throughout the film.

In person, the 57-year old Audiard is a nattily dressed figure, sporting a tailored suit, designer glasses and a brown trilby (his distinctive look

26 THE LIST 21 Jan–4 Feb 2010