Helmer sees 'A Prophet' as the end of a creative cycle

Jacques Audiard, helmer of French foreign language Oscar nominee “A Prophet,” isn’t ready to defect to Hollywood just yet.

Despite rumors of producers being interested in remaking the tough, multicultural prison film, Audiard says he’s staying in France for now. “If you want to shoot in a foreign country you really need to know that country,” he insists, though American films have been a major influence on his style.

Marked by unusual cuts, eerie hallucinations and spasms of intense violence, “A Prophet” isn’t like other prison pics.

Audiard focuses on the low-level, chameleon-like Arab character Malik (newcomer Tahar Rahim) who alternates his behind-bars allegiances between the Corsican and Muslim gangs to his personal advantage. With little or no context as to the character’s background, crime or potential, Audiard immerses the aud in Malik’s world, using the caged-in microcosm to comment on major cultural changes facing Europe at large.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the result, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and is now a finalist for Oscar’s foreign language statue, is how different “A Prophet” is from the script Audiard originally received from Abdel Raouf Dafri (a co-writer on the crime epic “Mesrine”).

“It was your usual gangster movie,” explains Thomas Bidegain, who assisted Audiard in his three-year re-write. In Dafri’s draft, only the first 30 minutes had been set in jail, after which it unfolded like yet another “Scarface” knock-off, Bidegain recalls. “That’s how I got the job: I said, ‘The first minute, he should arrive in jail, and the last minute, he leaves.'”

That approach is consistent with Audiard’s earlier work, which puts a psychological spin on traditionally commercial material. Audiard’s moral tales, always couched in familiar crime film elements (the underworld-trawling vengeance hunt of his debut, “See How They Fall,” or the vulnerable deaf secretary who falls for a dangerous ex-con in mid-career thriller “Read My Lips”), use handheld camerawork and an aggressively naturalistic approach to offset their potentially unbelievable plots.

The son of prolific French scribe Michel Audiard (who penned more than 100 films), the helmer spent his teen years gorging on the mix of new and classic fare playing the Parisian movie houses during the ’60s and ’70s. The young cineaste began experimenting with 16mm film early on, making stop-motion and Kenneth Anger-style shorts, but chose to study literature and philosophy in college.

Some years later, Audiard spent the better part of a decade editing other people’s movies and even worked briefly in theater, doing lights and assistant directing, before suffering the “nervous breakdown” he half-jokingly attributes with making him want to direct. Progress has been slow, Audiard acknowledges, with just five features in 15 years — a byproduct of his admittedly “very French” auteur persona (he not only helms, but writes as well) — and these days, he finds himself at something of an impasse.

“I see ‘A Prophet’ as the end of a certain cycle for me,” says the director, now 57, pointing out similarities to his previous film, Cesar winner “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.” “I’ve used the coming-of-age story several times in my films. Something new has to appear to keep me interested.”

In the case of “A Prophet,” Audiard was drawn to the idea of an Arab character who begins the film as a blank slate — an illiterate petty criminal with no family or history — and then forms an identity while in prison in opposition to the prevailing cultural and cinematic stereotypes (in which Arabs are often cast either as angry militants or saintly, misunderstood outsiders).

“Cinema can be relevant in Europe to document and observe the changes in society,” says the director, who explains his interest in crime films as a chanceto explore unfamiliar environments, learn their rules and meet the people who operate there.

“To see a film is a life experience. It’s supposed to teach you something about the world, or it serves no purpose,” he says. “The first time I came to New York, I had already seen ‘Mean Streets,’ and that’s the way it is. The cinema had told the truth, and that is sublime.”

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