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For certain film critics, the encomium “well-made” has near-talismanic powers. While it would doubtless be condescending to damn a novel with faint praise by saying it’s, say, “well-structured,” a number of commentators seemingly believe that film craftsmanship today is so slipshod that merely acknowledging a basic level of competence adds up to a huge endorsement. Or perhaps paeans to “well-made” films belie a nostalgia for a “tradition of quality” or a yearning to recapture a pre-modernist linearity that is even on the wane in mainstream art cinema.
Since its premiere at last summer’s Cannes Competition where it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize, Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète has been consistently extolled as a well-made film par excellence. In films such as Sur mes lèvres (2001) and De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (2005), glib pastiches of American thrillers seems to be the dominant aesthetic. Since prison films are not an especially well-established French genre, Un prophète resembles an unwieldy amalgamation of Goodfellas’ (1990) narrative template and the efficiency of Jacques Becker’s Le trou (1960), a jailbreak piece whose pyrotechnics exemplify a sleek strand of professionalism within the history of French cinema.
Audiard’s film is, alas, much more pretentious and, in the final analysis much more disingenuous, than Becker’s eminently “well-made” pseudo-classic. Armed with loftier ambitions and nurtured by the unwarranted affection given to his unremarkable earlier films, Audiard, as he observes in a press-book interview, is interested in nothing less than reshaping mythic archetypes and redefining the French gangster/prison film. At the film’s outset, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) enters prison for a six-year term for assaulting a cop. Malik’s origins as a child of French and North African parents has great narrative significance inasmuch as he functions as an intermediary between the Arab criminal subculture and a rival Corsican milieu.
All too often, a symptom of supposed craftsmanship in traditionally “well-made” films is a pronounced mechanical, or schematic, quality. This orientation becomes clear early in Un prophète with the meeting of Malik and a Corsican crime boss with a portentous name, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who appears to operate his empire seamlessly from prison. Recognizing Malik as a potentially valuable underling, as well as an emissary to the Arab underworld, César recruits him to kill an Arab prisoner named Reyeb whose homosexual advances have already angered the putative hero. Just as a series of high angle shots function as tedious short hand to establish the prison’s oppressiveness, the cementing of the master/slave relationship between César and Malik sets in motion a series of narrative dominoes that determine the characters’ fate. In a few brief, almost subliminal, shots, Malik murders Reyeb with a smuggled razor and earns César’s protection and tutelage. Although Malik’s decision proves pivotal, it’s difficult for viewers to care since Malik himself is not an intriguing chameleon but more or a less a cipher.
An implicit liberal humanist who employs Zolaesque determinism to bludgeoning effect, Audiard’s fondness for a malleable, if bland, protagonist undergirds the film’s novelistic aspirations. Illiterate as well as a tabula rasa, Malik’s brutal initiation into the rites of prison is followed by his immersion in French classes and a fortuitous alliance with Ryad, an Arab prisoner untainted by associations with the influential prison factions. These sequences possess a rote-like quality; like everything else in the convoluted plot, Malik’s unsentimental education happens to him with a clunkiness tied to its inexorability. There is none of the frisson of acquiring language skills that animates the Taviani Brothers’ Padre Padrone (1977). (Admittedly, this is not a sexy subject for a commercial movie.)
The largest quandary facing Audiard is his insistence on “universalizing” Malik’s experience and ignoring the emphasis on ethnic identity reiterated in the work of “Beur” directors such as Abdel Kechiche and Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche by choosing an opaque hero whose identity might be deemed either embryonic or misshapen. Un prophète’s not unreasonable proposal is that action, not static identity, is the defining crucible for Malik and his destiny. In concrete terms, this takes the form of numerous forays into drug running, and machinations involving conflicts between Arab and Corsican mobs, that Malik participates in during various leaves for good behavior that enable him to travel beyond the prison walls. During these sequences, Malik encounters a dizzying array of minor characters—thugs and factotums from various milieus—that both threaten and cajole him. But since the routine transfers of hashish, near-fatal encounters, and internecine quarrels are so boringly conveyed—a mere accretion of calamities and epiphanies without much emotional payoff—it’s not unfair to wonder if Audiard’s mechanistic view of character robs his enterprise of the cumulative power that either a Beur director, or one attuned to those communities’ history and struggles, might have brought to the project.
At times, Audiard leavens his anemic classicism with a few gratuitously poetic touches. During one of his forays into the countryside on behalf of the Corsicans, Malik is saved from almost certain death by the collision of a car with a wayward deer, an image redolent of bargain-basement surrealism. He is also intermittently haunted by the ghost of the slain Reyeb—a gimmicky intrusion that is doubtless intended to assure us that he is nothing like amoral gangsters such as Scarface’s (1983) Tony Montana. In countless interviews, Audiard enshrines Un prophète as an antidote to De Palma’s film; ironically, what his plodding film lacks is the dynamism and cinematic invention that Scarface gleefully exudes. Goodfellas, the tale of a novice initiated into a crime syndicate who eventually betrays his tutors, is more directly referenced. But Audiard lacks Scorsese’s cinematic flair—and Un prophète’s drab script (written with Thomas Bidegain) fails to come up with an equivalent to the American movie’s mastery of street vernacular or its use of snappy voiceover.
Alain Masson in Positif also made much of the literary propensities of Audiard’s prison epic, invoking Balzacian allusions with alacrity. There is something peculiar about juxtaposing Un prophète’s supposedly superior craftsmanship with a profusion of literary baggage, however. In the 20th century at least, the most notable French prison literature fused deeply personal concerns with political commitment. In Miracle of the Rose, Jean Genet converted his years of incarceration into a highly idiosyncratic form of poetic reverie while Victor Serge’s prison agonies, fictionalized in his novel Men in Prison, provide a framework for understanding his libertarian socialism. Audiard, on the other hand, favours an impersonal, neutral style that does not suggest, to say the least, a cinematic corollary of Balzac or any other major writer (although, as suggested earlier, the tone of crude determinism recalls vulgarized Zola.)
If Audiard’s many champions are correct about anything, it’s their assertion that the immodest director has a gift for directing actors. He does indeed elicit a remarkably visceral performance from Tahar Rahim as the pliable Malik. And the scenery-chewing Niels Arestrup does make for an arresting César, at one moment pontificating like a more malevolent version of Brando in The Godfather (1972) and finally sulking petulantly as his protégé betrays him. Unfortunately, Un prophète is not a venture in which acting can be savoured without reference to its narrative incongruities.
Adhering, perhaps unwittingly, to an all-things-to all-people agenda, Audiard can both claim that his film is a pure thriller, without sociological or political import, while inspiring pained inquiries into the “disgrace” of France’s overcrowded prisons, personified by an October 2009 New York Times article that practically handed it a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar four months early. Numerous critics have pondered whether the film’s conclusion, which ends with Malik’s release from prison and the promise of life with a new family, is “redemptive.” Yet this prospect ultimately carries little weight in a film that is sabotaged by its own contradictions—contradictions that are the product of authorial sketchiness instead of salutary complexity. Audiard does not have the courage (or the talent) to be either straightforwardly pulpy or an unabashed social realist. Consequently Un prophète, despite near-universal critical acclaim, languishes in an aesthetic no man’s land.