The Prophet Is Just A Prophet
We are still in January but A Prophet has already been anointed one of the films of the year. So when David Cox’s take on the film popped up in my feedreader, I thought it was typical journalistic contrarianism from someone whose opinion I don’t value. Having now seen the film, there is something to it though. Cox concludes:
So we’re left with a conventional genre flick decked out with a tasteful amount of imaginative and well-executed violence… Films like this one clearly press a very particular button, at least in rarefied quarters. Maybe they constitute a kind of brutality-porn for refined persons who require their fix cut with purported profundity and slicked out with subtitles.
There is a sense in which this type of film is prioritised by both critics and punters. Laurent Cantet’s The Class did get good reviews but it didn’t get this sort of coverage. Beyond this, there is a core of conventionality to the film which the skill of its execution can’t disguise. In his review, Peter Bradshaw raves that:
It comports itself like a modern classic from the very first frames, instantly hitting its massively confident stride. This is the work of the rarest kind of film-maker, the kind who knows precisely what he is doing and where he is going. The film’s every effect is entirely intentional.
This is true and the first act – in which young prisoner, Malik El Djebena (played by Tahar Rahim), finds himself forced into murder – is magnificent. After this, and despite the fact director Jacques Audiard is remarkable assured, the film does become something more like a conventional gangster film. El Djebena slowly rises to the top, building alliances, playing each side off against the other. Cox compares the film to Brian De Palma’s Scarface and, although Audiard is a much better and more interesting director than De Palma, the major difference is that there is no fall from grace. Instead the film culminates in a ridiculous final scene in which El Djebena finally leaves prison having served out his original sentence. He walks off into the sunset, side by side with his brand new family (a wife and child donated by his dead partner) and flanked by a convoy of SUVs containing his footsoldiers.
I watched A Prophet back to back with The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), Audiard’s previous film. To go with their blanket coverage of the former, the Guardian have published a post by Jonathan Jones comparing the latter with Michael Haneke’s Hidden, released the same year. Of Audiard’s film he says:
The Beat That My Heart Skipped is not a great movie. It’s quite good fun, with some terrific acting. It has the look and the atmosphere of some wonderful French films gone by. But it’s really a bit silly
Silly is a well chosen word. Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) is a thuggish real estate developer and aspiring concert pianist who trots around Paris in the most preposterously cocky manner imaginable (this is aided by the fact Duris has a simian facial resemblence to the young Martin Amis). His sensitive and brutish sides war, he rages and he mopes. Like A Prophet, it is disturbingly weightless and consequence-free. Even the fact his actions lead to the death of his father (played by Niels Arestrup, a similarly malevolent paternal presense in A Prophet) does not really get beneath the skin. This is not the remorseless ambiguity of Haneke but a turning away from the reality of the world Audiard has created.
It is my own fault. I recently watched both parts of the slick, stylish and hollow Mesrine (2008), another highly lauded French film. Afterwards I swore off gangster films but I only made it a week because I made an exception for Audiard. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough of an exception.
I should probably note that I still think Cox is a dick and I don’t find his more specific criticisms of the film particularly accurate. Nor do the commenters to the post; in fact, they tear into him at length. Some of them raise his review of Hunger which I hadn’t previously read. Sample quote:
I appreciate that my responses to this beautifully made film are uncharitable, immoderate and indeed reprehensible.
The negative response to this was so overwhelming that the readers’ editor felt obliged to respond. As with Hidden, Hunger does make an interesting comparision to A Prophet in terms of directorial boldness and producing truely extraordinary cinema.