Jacques Audiard has never made a bad movie, but neither has he made many of them. Five films in fifteen years: it’s a pace that might make you suspect him of harboring eccentric ambitions, or just being fussy, if he weren’t so obviously in love with genre storytelling. Four of his films, the new one included, are crime pictures; the fifth might be classified as a caper; and though all are stylish, they’re realized with such swift story development and emotionally direct acting that they give at least an impression of spontaneity, as if Audiard and his protagonists had figured out the plots together, on the run.
Perhaps "figured out" is an exaggeration. Audiard’s principal characters bluff, blunder and scheme their way through situations that have every appearance of being too much for them, given their patent frailties. Even the ex-con in Read My Lips, paroled into a flunky office job, could be overmastered by a copying machine–and he was played by the one real tough guy among Audiard’s actors, Vincent Cassel. (The heroine in that film was profoundly deaf and so had problems of her own, for which the tough-gal attitude of Emmanuelle Devos could not entirely compensate.) In Audiard’s other crime movies, his lead actors have been a neurotic, inward Romain Duris in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (a remake of James Toback’s Fingers, and for my money a considerable improvement on it) and the unmistakably homoerotic pair of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Mathieu Kassovitz in See How They Fall: Trintignant looking as fragrant and winning as a leather jacket salvaged from a garbage can, and Kassovitz trotting after him wide-eyed as if the jacket had true outlaw allure. As for Audiard’s caper, A Self-Made Hero (his satirical fable about a Frenchman who joins the Resistance on May 8, 1945), it was another project starring Kassovitz, this time as an upwardly mobile fabulist who so much wanted his profitable lies to be true that his girlfriends, and the audience, forgave him.
So too will the audience forgive the typically vulnerable and malleable protagonist of Audiard’s latest film, A Prophet (Un Prophète), even though Malik El Djebena is by far the most blood-spattered in this line of characters, and lives in the most violent and claustrophobic of the movies. Claustrophobic, yet expansive–because this contemporary prison drama stretches out for two and a half hours (not a minute of which is wasted) while covering six years of its main character’s life and a major portion of the National Front’s nightmares.
At the heart of the film is the dilemma of a young French Arab–illiterate, unskilled, at home nowhere except in the house of detention–when he at last graduates into the adult prison system and cannot make a place for himself in its cliques. On one side are the other Arabs, whose devotion to daily prayer appears to be alien to Malik. ("Have any special religious needs?" asks a guard–one of the very few old-style French people in the movie–during his intake interview. "You eat pork?" To which Malik shrugs and says, more or less, "Why not?") On the other side are the members of a Corsican gang, who are more powerful, more alien and (worst of all) more interested in Malik.
This gang needs him to kill another inmate, Reyeb, a wary informant who will let no one but a fellow Arab get close enough to strike; and though Malik has neither the tools nor the temperament for this job, he nerves himself up for it rather than let the Corsicans kill him first. In exchange for the murder, he receives a sweater (cheap, but better than his other clothes), the privilege of serving the gang members their coffee (while being called a dirty Arab) and immunity from further bullying (except, of course, by the Corsicans). All this, plus a life-size guilty conscience (which moves into the cell with him, looking just like the man he killed) and a thirst for revenge that is so urgent that Malik must be very, very patient to realize it.