Gemma King, Jacques Audiard. Manchester University Press, 2021.
* * *
In the first book-length exploration of the controversial director’s filmography, part of Manchester University Press’s French Film Directors series, Gemma King examines how Jacques Audiard’s oeuvre confronts the shifting relationship between French and global cinema. While the book series includes studies of transgressive directors such as Chantal Akerman and Catherine Breillat, with Jacques Audiard King engages the discussion of bold French cinematic conventions while insistently locating Audiard’s work within a transnational scope. She opens,
Fingers skitter across piano keys, spilling forth a frenzied melody. Hands curl into fists, rage turning the knuckles white as they pound into flesh. Fingertips reach up to an ear, delicately stroking a hearing aid to calibrate ambient noise. . . . From a prison outside Paris to a war zone in Sri Lanka; from a marine park on the Côte d’Azur to the goldfields of the 1850s Pacific Northwest; from stories of the Second World War Resistance to asylum-seeking, boxing and the many faces of French organised crime, the cinema of contemporary French filmmaker Jacques Audiard revolves around the movement of bodies. (14)
Combining impassioned summary with formal and contextual analysis, King’s prose conveys the sensory experience of Audiard’s films while identifying subversive aesthetic trends that center marginalized subjects and blur the divisions between popular and arthouse cinema. She persuasively argues that Audiard’s work presents a politically radical evolution of French auteurist cinema, as he applies a courageous artistic sensibility to a diverse range of progressive narratives, resulting in a filmography that is transgressive in both its subject matter and its defiance of generic categorization. Her filmic analysis is divided into three distinct chapters: Body, Society, and Globe, which respectively examine the stylistic and thematic consistencies underscoring Audiard’s boundary-crossing narratives.
In the first chapter, “Body: Physical Boundaries,” King breaks down how Audiard uses fragmented audiovisual stimuli to portray body diversity and non-normative sensory perception. She underscores the contradictions in those portrayals by selecting film stills that utilize body parts in innovative yet volatile forms of expression. For instance, in De Battre mon coeur s’est arrêté, the protagonist’s hands figure prominently as the symbolic intersection of the film’s oppositional themes of creating music and inflicting violence. She states, “touch for Audiard is often violent, and language and violence are frequently interlaced” (40), an observation that introduces Audiard’s tendency to collapse opposing motifs as a potent vehicle for nuance.
This intimate focus on the body’s communicative power also extends to the visual and aural techniques that King explores in Sur mes lèvres, a film centering a deaf woman who applies her lip-reading abilities to criminal espionage. Although King does not cite concrete responses from deaf communities, she relates how the film’s casting of a hearing woman contains the risk of inauthentic representation, and how the character’s seamless lip-reading would be “largely considered to be a myth by hearing-impaired people” (67). However, she favors the way Audiard grounds the film in the deaf character’s experience using an immersive soundscape that simulates both the isolation of her disability and an alternate, revelatory mode of sensory perception. She writes, “beyond the narrative instrumentalisation of Carla’s hearing impairment and related lip-reading ability, Sur mes lèvres is remarkable for the way in which it constructs a rich, subjective soundscape and aesthetic profoundly steeped in the body not only of the protagonist, but also that of the viewer” (60). Extreme close-ups of speaking mouths and intermittent diegetic sound construct a disorienting subjective gaze provoking what King characterizes as “embodied” cinema. King’s subsequent comparison of Audiard’s work to French Extremity cinema is fascinating, as it similarly involves intense focus on bodily damage, yet she distinguishes how Audiard’s work evades horror aesthetics in favor of restorative narratives. The comparison alludes to his signature method of genre-bending, while highlighting the ways he extends the provocative tilt of French cinematic traditions toward progressive formulations.
Similarly, King scrutinizes the treatment of a disabled woman’s sexuality in De rouille et d’os. She interrogates how Audiard’s female characters bear harm disproportionately, as the protagonist suffers a double amputation that divorces her physical body from her sexual identity. By exploring how the damage eventually provides the grounds for relearning forms of erotic looking and embodiment, King ultimately credits the way Audiard’s portrayal of the feminine disabled body is sexually progressive and refreshingly nuanced. The most convincing defense King presents of Audiard’s engagement with women’s bodies is that his protagonists exercise agency and social ascent via their disabilities, not despite them, a salient point in defining Audiard’s consideration of bodily difference as its own form of border crossing.
Audiard’s repeated portrayal of the upwardly mobile underdog is central to the chapter “Society: Cultural Barriers,” in which King excavates how his narratives of social transgression reveal a cynical outlook on French society. Focusing on Regarde les hommes tomber, Un prophète, and Un héros très discret, King explores how various protagonists enact complicated pseudo-familial relationships and adopt new social codes in response to their disadvantages. She states, “Notwithstanding the intensity of these ambiguous relationships being the driving force of the narrative, the tenuous social fabric that holds these characters together is nonetheless dependent on fragile, heteronormative constructs of sexual identity that prevent these desires from being voiced.” This analysis extracts Audiard’s pessimistic view of paternalistic society, yet King broadly connects the characters’ enigmatic, malleable identities to the aptitude of Audiard’s social outcasts for breaking taboos and thus bridging social divides. Her discussion of Un prophète most effectively centers the archetypal figure who navigates French society’s fraught multiculturalism, as the protagonist Malik learns multilingual code-switching to establish himself as uniquely powerful within a punishingly hierarchical prison system. King points out the film’s valorization of minority languages, including Arabic and Corsican, as powerful tools for dismantling oppressive structures and how as a result, Malik’s ascent poses cultural difference as a mobilizing force.
However, what I find most compelling in King’s analysis is her analysis of the dialectical tension between Audiard’s empowering vision of marginal identity and the equation of social ascent with moral corruption, forcing a confrontation with the inherent violence of systems that require extreme methods of survival. As King extrapolates from Un prophète, “One of the Corsicans teaches [Malik] the extremely risky method of murdering an inmate with a razor blade concealed inside his mouth while pretending to offer fellatio. The social outlier Jordi, a heroin user with a vast network of contacts outside the prison, walks Malik through a novel plan for setting up a heroin distribution chain through the prison. But perhaps the most valuable skills are the ones that Malik teaches himself: manipulation, control and especially language” (126). King explains how in radically reimagining the position of minority groups within dominant French society, Audiard confronts the endemic nature of crime as the sole means of mobility for the social underdog. Her descriptive prose mimics the film’s frenetic succession of dangerous events, emulating the precarity and adrenaline intrinsic to Malik’s risky survival tactics. The parallels she draws between minority triumph and violence implicate the protagonists as potentially antiheroic figures, rendering morality irrelevant in the pursuit of emancipation and resisting didacticism in serving to condemn French society’s hostility toward marginalized groups.
Furthering the discussion of multiculturalism in Audiard’s films, “Globe: National Borders” analyzes his overtly international works that decenter the connection between geographic location and national identity. King employs the term “cinéma-monde,” coined by Bill Marshall, to describe how Audiard’s films oppose rigid delineations of national boundaries, and thus disallow an exclusively French cinematic identification. However, her discussion of Dheepan includes an account of its polarizing critical reception and questions the authenticity of its Tamil representation. She acknowledges how “Audiard did not start from a place of curiosity about the Tamil language and culture or the effects of the Sri Lankan civil war on its citizens. Instead, Audiard started sketching out the characters based on the fact that they would be immigrants, specifically ones who did not speak French, so that they would encounter a language barrier in France” (171). She also poignantly considers the danger of associating the violent “banlieu” with immigration, but primarily focuses on the poignant ways the film counteracts the myth of Europe as an impermeable safe haven. Her ambivalence surrounding Audiard’s portrayals of minority subjects innovates an engagement with his cinema that is equivocally optimistic; she expounds on his work’s progressive potential while maintaining accountability for his irreconcilable position of power and by extension, that of French filmmakers at large.
King repeatedly prefaces positive analysis with criticisms of Audiard’s representations of marginalized subjects, acknowledging his complicity in upholding oppressive ideology yet decisively characterizing him as a progressive director. Her consistent approval may seem overly generous, but she acknowledges that Audiard’s cinema seeks to destroy myths about France by directly addressing dominant powers, while also reserving praise for his high levels of creative risk. Similarly, she identifies Audiard’s defiance of generic categorization as a meaningful example of creative innovation. When describing his film Les Frères Sisters, set in the United States, she writes, “It ‘looks’ like a Western, but that frame ultimately proves insufficient to understand the complex narrative shifts and relationships at its heart. It ‘looks’ like a Hollywood film, but such a label does not hold up to scrutiny, either, in terms of its production conditions, the conventions of auteur theory or even the film’s domestic and international promotion” (192). This film’s connection to French cinema appears tenuous, but King argues that it embodies “cinéma-monde” as an internationally formed production. She extrapolates on the multinational co-production to speculate a worldview in which culture continuously crosses lines, yet once again I am most drawn to the stylistic duality she highlights in Audiard’s work. By repeatedly noting the filmmaker’s commitment to synthesizing disparate aesthetics, it becomes clear that his form accentuates the political tide of his oeuvre by eschewing containment.
To the English-speaking film enthusiast or student, Jacques Audiard logically distills the relationship between the formal configurations and political ideology of a challenging and aberrant body of contemporary French cinema. Notably, King’s insistent prose matches the confrontational intensity of Audiard’s films, while her analysis methodically delineates her understanding of Audiard as an inherently paradoxical creator: “Located somewhere between the arthouse and the B movie, the French and the transnational, the feminist and the patriarchal, the familiar and the innovative, Jacques Audiard’s characters and films reflect his own eternally shifting position, at once within and beyond the imaginary French cinema” (212). Her descriptive juxtapositions insist on those contradictions that imbue Audiard’s films with a sense of volatility and that mirror the injustices of French hierarchical society. Although King’s method of identifying recurring themes itself is repetitious, she effectively conveys an experience of Audiard’s films akin to spectatorship while bolstering their potential for progressive messaging. In this way Audiard and King respond in tandem to the growing eminence and responsibility of French cinema to subvert the ethnic, national, and artistic boundaries of European film tradition, embracing a radical expansion of cinematic methodologies that can address the fragility of power and the strength of diverse experience.