Matthew Lee ranks Jacques Audiard’s films from worst to best…
To coincide with the release of Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan [read our review here], the winner of last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, we’re looking through this auteur’s back catalogue. With consistent critical acclaim, we’re here to see if such receptions still hold up, and to see if certain films still warrant such appraisal. We may also be able to detect recurring themes, motifs, and visual traits, and to see if they’ve matured in later projects, or have diminished in time. In short, we’re ranking the man’s films from worst to best.
6 – The Beat That My Heart Skipped
Jacques Audiard firmly roots himself in the crime underworld of Paris with his follow-up to Read My Lips. Thuggish broker Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) involves himself in unscrupulous activity to assist in his real estate enterprise. This aggressive path is influenced by his small-time crook father Robert (Niels Arestrup) who also makes a living in real estate through his own violent ways. Thomas, in a chance meeting with his late mother’s manager, decides to audition for the role as a concert pianist. However, given his wayward years he isn’t as great he once was, and so under the guidance of Chinese émigré Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), he practices daily for the role. Alongside this, one of Thomas’ colleagues Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccaï) spends his evenings cheating on his girlfriend Aline (Aure Atika). And to further complicate matters Thomas is in love with Aline. Phew – that is a lot to take in, and we’ve only just started.
As one can see Audiard stretches the scope far in this picture and this is not to be taken as a compliment. Considering the above paragraph is only the film’s primary setup, with each factor of Thomas’s life providing its own obstacles, and minimal crossover, there isn’t any space for nuanced moments of self-reflection as seen his Audiard’s other films. Certain plot threads are either skimmed over – his interactions with Aline – or are not fully developed – his tumultuous relationship with his father – which marks this as a unrewarding experience.
The narrative issue is a shame, for the performances in this film are brilliant. Romain Duris conveys the various facets of this man’s life, seamlessly portraying the different mannerisms that such conflicting parts of his life undoubtedly bring; notably when he tries to remain composed around his father who views his pianist passion with derision. In short, Duris’ realist performance provides snippets of this man’s life to make his own transformation natural. It’s a pity then that the film feels like a densely overcrowded mess. Too much of Thomas’ life is crammed into one film, one begins to wonder: surely less is more?
5 – See How They Fall
Jacques Audiard’s debut has his distinctive visual motifs, as well as some early mistakes he (thankfully) never repeated. There are two stories running parallel here; the first concerns with middle-caged salesman Simon (Jean Yanne) who is investigating the shooting of his friend and police officer Mickey (Yvon Back). The other is of an aging petty criminal named Marx (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who begrudgingly mentors the naive and enthusiastic Johnny (Mathieu Kassovitz).
Prior to this film, Audiard had an illustrious career as a screenwriter, and the film’s first ten minutes proves this. There is a nondescript voice-over narrating Simon’s repetitive sales pitch, and providing some basic setup. While Audiard’s later films will not shy away from motif, it is used here simply as exposition. Additional proof is found in the abundant, and arbitrary, deployment of title-cards. They’re each highly descriptive of the scene following it; one notable example is detailing the locale of Mickey’s hospital quarters. With three title cards used in the first eight minutes, one can indicate that this filmmaker is more comfortable writing a scene, than shooting one.
Other early issues arise when one can predict the films outcome; or, more precisely, how these two stories will intertwine. While Marx and Johnny’s narrative has subversive humour to engage its audience, the conventional mystery of Simon only has snippets of levity, thus making his trajectory a chore. With only moments of subversion, and one abrupt dream sequence exploring Simon’s troubled marriage, his detective narrative is a dull affair; the audience pre-empts the eventual outcome, which makes the red herrings distracting for all the wrong reasons. Conversely, Marx and Johnny’s relationship evolves from a homoerotic one to a father-son-like dynamic in a most joyous manner. Marx’s mood swings from genuine care of this puppy-like moron, to utter frustration of Johnny’s neediness has its moments of wit.
What one can garner from Audiard’s debut is his preference for crime-based stories and an ability to write an ensemble of unique, quirky characters. See How They Fall is a flawed film, and is really one for the most devoted of Audiard fans.
4 – Read My Lips
Partially deaf secretary Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) has a lonely lifestyle, only shares minor conversations with her singular friend Annie (Olivia Bonamy), and she must burden with the lack of respect from her colleagues. In need of an assistant, the company drafts ex-convict Paul (Vincent Cassel), and despite being unqualified for the position Carla hires him. Paul must also juggle his new role with an evening bar job to pay off his extortionate debt to local crime-boss and nightclub owner Marchand (Oliver Gourmet).
Carla’s ordinary appearance doesn’t sit right with the patriarchal office space, and the overt misogyny permeating its milieu. But through her desperation for validation she sees potential in Paul’s ‘bad-boy’ background. This contrast – a thematic set up that is pertinent in Audiard’s later work – is distinct in their circumstances, and conveyed so in their form and in their personalities. They both wear muted colours to blend in, they attempt to hide their physical attributes that they deem embarrassing (Paul with his tattoos and Carla with her hearing aid), and they both behave uncomfortably around the more ‘accepted’ members of society. Therefore, their commonalities are brought to the foreground before they begin to bond.
Emmanuelle Devos won the 2002 Cesar Award for Best Actress and rightly so. Her transformative performance from a meek, closed-up posture in the opening sequence, to her confident exuberance is organically portrayed on-screen. Her character Carla is not wholly a victim (she ignores and repels other deaf people), and is one that hasn’t accepted herself. Her inability to accept herself manifests itself in a manner that (essentially) allows other characters to disrespect her. Such insecurities are portrayed in such a manner as to elicit sympathy from the audience.
The climactic battle, which will be rehashed in Dheepan, successfully balances the chaos and the visceral experience, without a detriment to narrative clarity. Read My Lips is a noteworthy crime caper that follows its title through to the end.
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