Dangerous liaisons: Why Jacques Audiard is the French Scorsese

Jacques Audiard's films champion immoral outsiders and charismatic gangsters – and audiences love them.

Jacques Audiard is currently the toast of European cinema. His new film, A Prophet, which opens here tomorrow, is winning prizes and receiving incredible critical acclaim and was named Best Film at the inaugural London Film Festival awards.

He's only directed five films and already the BFI is putting on a retrospective titled, Jacques Audiard and the French Thriller, in which his work is considered alongside classics by Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean Renoir, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol.

A Prophet confirmed the suspicion held by many after the international success of Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped that the 57-year-old is the most exciting director working today. Here was someone who made movies with "French cool" and successfully mixed it with the entertainment values of Hollywood. His work is now mentioned in the same breath as Martin Scorsese.

He says he owes his film-making philosophy to his father, the screenwriter and eight-time director Michel. "For me, there was no great myth around the movies, when I was a young child. My father was very simple about the whole thing. He did not consider cinema an art. Cinema was entertainment. Literature and music were art."

Like Scorsese at his best, Audiard concentrates on tales of flawed men, who would be anti-heroes if they didn't all seem to still like committing crimes. These are men who operate through deceit and violence. It's the brilliance of Audiard that he makes us root for them.

What sets Audiard apart from Scorsese, is that rather than turn to a single actor, a Robert De Niro or a Leonardo DiCaprio, in his last four films, Audiard has created four stunning performances from four very different actors.

Mathieu Kassovitz starred in A Self-Made Hero in 1996. It's a rare beast, a French work that finds comedy in the Resistance. Kassovitz, who also starred in Audiard's 1994 debut See How They Fall, plays Albert Dehousse, a draft-dodger who takes advantage of the post-Second World War chaos to claim that he was a vital part of the Resistance movement in London.

Audiard impressively manipulates all the bad characteristics that make Dehousse a loser when living in a small-town, a man who cowardly runs out on his wife and child into the very things that make him a success as an impersonator. It's through his deceit that Audiard questions the accepted history of the Resistance.

There is a line spoken by the actor Albert Dupontel in this film that describes all of Audiard's men: "Losers can seem like winners, devils like angels and cowards like heroes."

Vincent Cassel played such a man in Read My Lips. The thriller is a rarity in Audiard's oeuvre in that it features a woman, Emmanuelle Devos, in a principal role as a deaf office secretary who takes a shine to a trainee with a criminal record. Cassel in turn encourages his deaf friend to help him commit a robbery.

Everything about Cassel should make him unlikeable: he's a selfish ungrateful brute only interested in committing crime, yet dressed in ill-fitting suits and badly knotted tie he looks like an uncouth detective that has just walked off an atmospheric Italian thriller. Throw in the fact that he character's macho nature means that he can't resist helping a damsel in distress and suddenly the ogre becomes a hero in a disaster of his own making. Classic Audiard.

His fourth film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, is a remake of James Toback's 1970s thriller, Fingers, and it's a rarity in that it's a remake that's better than the original. One big reason for it's success is the charismatic turn of Romain Duris as a brutal henchman who makes sure that debts are paid to his bumbling father, but secretly yearns to be a concert pianist.

His piano teacher is a Chinese immigrant who cannot speak French. Somehow this is turned into the central romance despite the fact that we only see the loveable rogue Duris sleeping with his best friend's wife and a Russian gangster's mistress. The major change from the original is the upbeat ending and this is in keeping with the director's penchant for the neat ending.

The Hollywood scripts and endings are one of the reasons why French critics have been dismissive of his work. It doesn't help his cause either that his father, Michel, was an outsider of the French New Wave known for his witty and conventional scripts that made him a scapegoat for Paris critics who adored Godard et al. As a young man, Jacques initially tried to turn his back on the family business, telling me, "When you're a kid and your father is an engineer, he goes to the office. I saw my father get up and go to the office in the house and write. But I don't see any similarities."

Before Michel's death in 1985, the father and son even worked together adapting Marc Behm's novel Mortelle Randonnée for Claude Miller to direct. But the director of A Prophet is very much his own man.

Indeed, he can come across as unlikeable as his characters; when I met him at Cannes he was cocky and self-assured. He can be infuriatingly evasive, yet also mixed in with this confidence is a charm and humour. It seems he wants to be both rebellious and loved at the same time, a conflict of emotions that is apparent in all of his characters, especially Malik in A Prophet.

Audiard says of the character, "When he first starts out in the film, he has no identity at all. He's a homeless person, neither Arab nor religious. The other people in prison give him his identity. It's the Caucasians who give him an identity – you're an Arab, you're a dirty Arab."

All the ingredients that have made Audiard such a favourite of cineastes are at work here, an unlikely hero, crime as an escape, criticism of French society, and most importantly an entertaining story of a man determined to rise to the top that could work in any Hollywood gangster tale from The Godfather to Scarface.

He doesn't shy away from commenting on his own ingenuity either. "The title is a bit ironic, tongue-in-cheek, the word prophet has two meanings – the religious sense and then the second meaning is someone who announces that something is coming. This prophet announces the coming of a new type of gangster – an anti-Scarface. A gangster, who is intelligent, cultivated, a very good father, not violent, good manners. Not a typical gangster. An 'anti-Scarface'. Probably a politician!"

There can also now be no room for any argument that as a director of actors, Audiard is second-to-none. He's taken the unknown Tahar Rahim and coaxed out a performance that has seen him nominated for a clutch of awards. Not since Ray Winstone claimed he was the daddy in Alan Clarke's Scum has an actor made so much out of being stuck in a prison drama.

Another element that Audiard constantly returns to is the relationship between master and apprentice. In all his oeuvre, someone is being taught or wants to impress and naturally the director has his own theory on why this make his films so good: "It's not a conscious choice. I'm not aware that I do that. The film critics have made me realise I always come back to that. I guess I have to admit it. It's a very good dramatic art mechanism for filming actors. Also using a bit of comedy like Groundhog Day, it's a mechanism that works very well.

In the end, his characters just want to be seen at the top of the tree. And while the director's father was deemed a failure when he tried to make the jump from scriptwriter to director, the son has made the move with aplomb. A Prophet will almost certainly be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

There is a formula at work here but it's a brilliant one that takes the best of European and American cinema, adds a riveting male character who wants to make an impression and ramps up the tension by putting them in difficult life-threatening situations. Better still if the central protagonist is someone we would normally be asked to hate as a character; in A Prophet, it's a non-practising Muslim thug. No one's complaining because Audiard has cooked up some of the best movies of the past 15 years.

Jacques Audiard and the Thriller is on at the BFI to 31 January. 'A Prophet' is released tomorrow

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