Directed by Jacques Audiard
Running Time: 2 hours 29 minutes
An uneducated young Arab, Malik (Tahar Rahim) knows nothing about survival in jail when he begins a six year prison sentence. However, a Corsican gang leader, Cesar (Niels Arestrup) has plans for him and he soon begins his criminal education.
“The film shows Audiard to be the biggest beast in new French cinema”. The Guardian
I have often wondered at French people, I am sure there must be exceptions here but often, just watching a French man or woman walk down the street in not particularly striking clothes and you think that they are the final word in elegance and sophistication.
Jacques Audiard’s film has a similar quality.
We have all seen prison movies before and know what to expect: the humiliating strip search, the suspicious fellow cons eying up the new recruits, cell doors slamming with terrible finality and then the fights begin. Oh yes and don’t forget the moody shots out through the barred windows of the wonderful outside world of freedom and the rough justice which is a form of honour amongst thieves.
All Monsieur Audiard needed to do was to give his actors that certain Gallic moodiness and provide the show with some moody Parisian music and we would all have gone home feeling that it had been an evening perfectly well spent.
This is a long film, thought through with a sense of the epic and an unimpeachable instinct for suspense. If Jacques Audiard had merely followed precedent here it would have seemed even longer. Fortunately he was after doing something much subtler than anything that I sketched out above even though all those elements are there.
Just like one of Jeanne Moureau’s simple little black cocktail dresses or an Alan Delon t-shirt, this film triumphs magnificently by knowing how to do great things with simplicity. Elegantly composed and perfectly timed shots transform a gradually unfolding plot in the greyest of penitentiaries into a gripping drama which holds you and enthralls you until the very last frame.
Jacques Audiard knows just how one picture cuts with the next and has no need for gimmicky tricks or weird effects so that when he decides to add an extra visual dimension to his classically no-nonsense style, we are not just prepared to go with him but we are startled by the simplest of techniques such as when he chooses to illustrate young Malik’s terror by compressing the shots taken from the young man’s point of view through a sinisterly dark lens.
We are similarly well-disposed to the potentially tension-wrecking concept of bringing back a character who is horrifically murdered early on in the drama even though we are not always clear what his presence is meant to convey.
The pace is as brilliantly sustained as a piece of music by Maurice Ravel so that, when and only when the director says so, we are hurtled without any warning into the drama of violence and panic when the screen explodes with blood. Then, with equal surprize, we are smiling with the release of tension. It is all about that other French quality, nuance.
The director is helped by a sensational performance by Tahar Rahim as the naive and illiterate young Arab whose education into the real world is the raison d’etre of the plot. Rahim’s performance, just like the film itself, is a study in under-statement so that on the few occasions that he smiles, the screen and the audience light up with him. The transformation of his character as the movie develops is so subtle that you never really pin-point the changes but you never leave his side.
He is perfectly matched by the frightening Corsican mafia chief Cesar played with repressed aggression and unnerving smoothness by the impressive Niels Arestrup, a patrician thug whose hand movements draw attention to his rings as if, like any true Godfather or Borgia Pope, he expects us to kneel and kiss them.
You would have to look for a long time to find any character in the film who is free from sin but this is a grown up drama about grown up things when the best you can dream for in life is not necessarily ethically correct or even desirable. The film’s genius is in its avoidance of black and white explanations or easy concepts of good and evil. Jacques Audiard has made a modern masterpiece of French cinema and taught us to be very careful about what we do with razor blades. Fantastique.