Monday, July 19, 2010

Jacques Audiard Then and Now.

A Prophet. (2010)

Read My Lips. (2001)

Oscar-nominated, Cesar-sweeping, Cannes winner A Prophet is a grimy, gritty prison film in which inmates outrank the warden and guards, and powering over your neighbor is how you advance in social standing. It is the anti-Shawshank, where prisoners form bonds through abuse and create a habitat through pure aggression. Whereas The Shawshank Redemption had the tag line, "Hope can set you free," A Prophet might instead have a line that reads, "You'll never have hope, you'll never be free." Once you've been to this prison your odds outside are cursed -- you might as well stay behind bars and work the system from inside.

The film has critics and cinephiles going nuts, and honestly, I can't blame them. It is an incredibly well-acted gangster-style film filled with the boiling tension this genre best manifests. But it is nowhere near Audiard's best film. In fact, on a scale of "masterpiece" to "well-made film," Audiard has been working backwards over the course of the last decade. His three films in the past ten years have each tied together criminals and gangsters -- it's the stuff he likes to deal with -- but the first time he spun it still remains his best, a picture with sizzling chemistry between male and female leads and magnetic visual flourishes to delight a paying crowd.

I had the unique opportunity to catch Read My Lips on the big screen only moments after A Prophet. The former filmically levels the latter.

It's the story of Carla (Emmanuelle Devos, who I also adore in
La Moustache), a partially deaf secretary who works with hearing aids, and Paul (blue-eyed Parisian ladykiller Vincent Cassel), a bad-boy ex-con love interest. They meet when Carla's boss decides her work load is too heavy and she needs to find an assistant. Paul is completely unqualified for office work -- he can't type or take dictation and he can't even figure a fax machine -- but he applies anyway, and Carla reluctantly hires him when she learns he's just out of prison. She's intimidated and fascinated with him, and she's been looking for a man in the position anyway. In a humorous scene where she dictates the job offer, it's obvious she's looking for more than just a work-mate.

Carla spends her lunches alone perusing fashion magazines, but reads coworkers' lips at other lunch tables. She knows when she's the subject of gossip. Her secret about reading lips is revealed to Paul when he begins to share his lunch time with her.

Paul has had those bad-boy moments in life, you can taste his past in his general demeanor, but he isn't necessarily the bad guy in the story between the two. In fact, he may have had a fresh start coming out of jail if it weren't for Carla prompting him to steal an office document for her advantage. He doesn't want to -- he says it could get him in a lot of trouble. She reminds him that he owes her. She not only got him the job, but an advance on his pay, and a place to live.

A tricky relationship forms over who owes who more. Paul uses Carla's ability of reading lips to work to his advantage. He wants to pull off a heist from some shady characters to whom he owes a large amount of money, and her ability comes in handy at springing their secrets. The two begin to tumble down a hole of who owes how much to whom, which obligation is bigger, how far down the hole each is willing to fall, and how they are going to correct all the mishaps and mistakes made along the way.

An attraction is formed, but as they each pile up the obligations, the attraction is put on hold in favor of the next business tryst. The attraction keeps us interested in the story, frustrated as things get when we watch the characters interact. So many times they are simply put off by the obligations. When one walks away from the other, they'll whisper, "Bastard!" or "Bitch!"

It's a well rounded film that ends on exactly the right note. It is believable, interesting, even fun to watch as it develops. It's another good Euro-thriller to throw in your queue, but it was better on the big screen. By far.

Believable, and, to a point even interesting, A Prophet has an IMDB summary which reads, "A young Arab man is sent to a French prison where he becomes a mafia kingpin." After seeing the film nothing changes about that description at all. The pre-viewing teaser and the post-watching summary are the same. We've watched a seemingly good bad-guy turn into a very bad bad-guy over a long 155 minutes of viewing time. I can't quite get the point beyond that, but there's been some good reflection on the film from other sources.

Critic James Bowman has said:
When the movies abandoned the moral context in which they once represented crime and criminals — even when the morality was inverted for political reasons and the bad guys became good guys and the good guys bad — they found that they had nothing to put in its place but a kind of voyeurism.
This may have something to do with my reaction, which isn't necessarily negative as much as it is ambivalent. I can see why people are raving. It's well made. But the characters aren't. They're just thrown into a prison and left to fend for themselves. We only know as much about them as other prisoners do, which creates realism in the way they relate to each other, but is utterly boring because we don't have a background by which to judge them.

I lost interest after about half an hour. I disengaged from the story and turned into one of those voyeurs.

The thing Audiard does in Read My Lips that he shies away from in
A Prophet, understandably so, is simply have a bit of fun. Similar iris shots in both films form circular masks used to great effect around the characters, but it is much more scrumptious and fun and used with greater repetition in Read My Lips.

A Prophet can't have fun because there's no fun in the script to be had. When there's no fun to be had by any of the script, acting, or rendering, there's no fun to be had by the audience either.

Both of the films, and in fact Audiard's 2005 The Beat That My Heart Skipped qualify as "good" films. In the case of the two I'm comparing, one is simply easier to take, and you actually desire a repeated viewing. I can't imagine trying to sit through the lengthy A Prophet again just to see if I got it wrong the first time. And I can't believe how much talk it's getting this year without looking at Audiard's stronger, more unnoticed works works of the past.

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