Audiard’s method: as slow and steady as the waves

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

My first impression of director Jacques Audiard is that he’s almost as wired as the street-punk hero of his film “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” fidgeting in his chair, desperate for a smoke, jumping in mid-translation to clarify a point. Entering his sixth decade, Audiard shows no signs of slowing down, and if anything his films just keep getting better. “Rust and Bone,” only his sixth film in a 20-year directing career, is opening wide in Japan — thanks in part to his locally popular star Marion Cotillard — and may finally move the director well beyond his art-house fan base.

After finishing his last film, the prison-gang drama “A Prophet” — which won the Jury prize at Cannes in 2009 — Audiard spent the next three years working on an adaptation of two short narratives from Craig Davidson’s book “Rust and Bone: Stories,” a long but rather typical commitment by the director/screenwriter. When asked whether he suffers from perfectionism, Audiard replies, “No, nothing is perfect, ever. But that sort of interval between films is important to me. Every time I set out to make a film, it feels like I’m doing it for the first time. I’d love to make more films, actually, but for me, it just takes time, and the thing that takes the longest is the script.”

That’s not surprising to anyone who’s seen the precise way in which Audiard (who also pens the screenplays with his partner, Thomas Bidegain) advances his stories. Unlike the explain-everything-always linearity of Hollywood storytelling, Audiard’s films feel more like a collection of moments, impressionistic fragments that coalesce perfectly as the story progresses.

“This time, as I was writing the script, I really wanted to make it so that scene by scene, you’d have no idea what was coming next,” comments the director. “But I found myself moving in that direction from ‘Read My Lips’ (2001). I’d be writing everything out, the entire scenario, but then I’d wind up cutting out some of the connecting scenes, the links. It’s all about the gaps.”

As an example, in “Rust and Bone” (released in Japan as “Kimi to Aruku Sekai” and originally titled “De Rouille et d’Os” in France), the viewer never learns exactly why Ali is alone with his son, or what happened to the boy’s mother. Audiard notes that he does write out the entire back story in the screenplay, but chooses to cloak some of it.

“Of course, then the problem becomes cutting out too much. I’ll watch a cut and realize I’m not explaining enough to the viewer, and have to add things back in.”

No doubt the director’s training as an editor — before becoming a director he started his career working on Roman Polanski’s 1976 film “The Tenant” — gives him an instinctual grasp of how to cut these disparate pieces into a smooth, cohesive whole.

Cotillard’s performance in “Rust and Bone” as an aquarium trainer who loses her legs after an accident is perhaps her best ever, encompassing the whole range of feelings a person must surely go through after such a terrible ordeal.

When asked how he directed his actress, Audiard replies, “We didn’t go looking for any sort of real-life model. Even if we wanted to be documentary-real about it (coping with a severe physical disability), of course there’s a limit. That’s why, at the end of the day, you have to have faith in the talent of the person playing the role. And the actress has to believe in herself. That’s the most important thing.

“Of course there are the physical limitations Marion has to learn, but the emotional reality of it depends entirely on the strength of her performance.”

Cotillard’s character is male in Davidson’s story and loses only one leg, but the director immediately saw the possibility for some erotic frisson between the two leads by changing it to a woman who loses both her legs. (Not that Audiard is opposed to exploring same-sex relationships: Watch his first film, “See How They Fall,” for that.)

“My biggest difficulty as a filmmaker up until now has been sex scenes,” says the director, “but this movie cured it.” Which may seem strange to say when one of the characters has stumps below her knees, but seeing is believing, and the film burns white heat. Cotillard herself has noted how she often finds playing such scenes “awkward” but that because of her character Stephanie’s journey trough trauma and recovery, with sex being a big part of the latter, she was much more comfortable with the risque bits this time.

Of course, the question does arise: How do you block a bedroom scene with legs, when they will be digitally removed later? Audiard explains how Cotillard would wear green stockings to mark the area to be removed, but admits, “I had to kind of imagine how it would look afterwards. But after we had done a rough cut, altering her image with the CGI, it turned out to be way more erotic than I had expected.”

Audiard’s road to ‘Rust’

“See How They Fall” (1994): This was the year everyone was raving about the fractured narrative of “Pulp Fiction,” but I’d say Audiard did it better. His two separate story lines — about a pair of itinerant grifters (Mathieu Kassovitz and Jean-Louis Trintignant) and a vengeance-seeking salesman — run on seemingly parallel tracks until a thrilling late-film collision.

“A Self-Made Hero” (1996): Kassovitz stars in Audiard’s one farce, the story of a draft-evading salesman in post-World War II Paris who invents a past for himself as a heroic resistance fighter. Woody Allen’s “Zelig” is one reference point, Hal Ashby’s “Being There” another, but Audiard has a much more cynical eye.

“Read My Lips” (2001): This delicious neo-noir has Emmanuelle Devos as a deaf, dumped-upon and dowdy office-worker, ignored by all except for Vincent Cassel’s roughneck ex-con. He sees not only the criminal potential in her lip-reading skills, but the wild-child soul burning somewhere deep inside. Looks rather like a twin of “Rust and Bone” now.

“The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005): The film that shot Romain Duris to stardom, as he channels the spirit of “Taxi Driver”-era Robert De Niro in this adrenaline-fueled portrait of a Parisian wiseguy who wants to become a concert pianist. A remake of James Toback’s “Fingers,” this film showed Audiard to be an astute student of ’70s American cinema, and actually able to top it.

“A Prophet” (2009): Tahar Rahim, in a striking debut, plays a young vagrant convicted of a minor crime who finds he has to kill or be killed in a brutal gang-controlled prison. Audiard plays up the racial aspects, as North African and Corsican gangs vie for control, but also finds time to take us inside the guilty conscience of his protagonist.