An eye for the story

French director Jacques Audiard explains why he's drawn to themes of conflict.

Jacques Audiard 88 298 (photo credit: )
Jacques Audiard 88 298
(photo credit: )
As Jacques Audiard sits chain smoking and sipping espressos on the terrace of the caf at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, it's hard to imagine that this rail-thin and soft-spoken director is the man behind the gritty neo-noir film, The Beat My Heart Skipped, which opens today in theaters throughout Israel. Beat, which won eight awards this year at the Cesars, France's Oscar equivalent, including Best Picture and Best Director, is the unlikely story of a tormented son of a gangster who longs to make a name for himself as a classical pianist but has a hard time shaking his violent past. Although the film is a remake of a James Toback movie starring Harvey Keitel, Fingers (1978), Beat is very much Audiard's creation. He was drawn to "the tragedy of the story," he tells The Jerusalem Post. "It's just like Greek drama. It has the universal theme of the conflict between good and evil, what brings evil from generation to generation." Audiard's anti-hero, Thomas (played with smoldering intensity by Romain Duris, who is in virtually every frame), who makes his living as a soldier in his father's criminal army, "is a regular person, doing a job, not really a bad boy." It's a job that includes beating up and terrorizing immigrants in an apartment building the owner wants to sell, as well as other violent tasks, but this adds to the fascination for Audiard, who comments: "It's interesting to worry about someone who isn't conventionally good." Audiard acknowledges his debt to Duris, for whom he wrote the film. "He's a very good actor," says Audiard. "Very supple. He did not stop with a fixed image of the character." Duris immersed himself in the part, studying piano four hours a day for three months to prepare. "He worked on his style, and started dressing all the time in the style of the character," who favors conservative white shirts and narrow ties, sporting them "like a uniform." Asked whether it is intentional that the plot resembles not only Fingers but Francois Truffaut's second feature film, Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Audiard gives what can only be described as a Gallic shrug, saying that Beat bears "no connection" to the Truffaut film. He does admit to being influenced by the French New Wave filmmakers, who remade their own vision of American film noir, saying he was drawn to these French filmmakers' "glance of America." "I was formed by independent cinema," he says, mentioning, along with the New Wave directors, the American filmmakers Martin Scorsese, John Cassevetes, Stanley Kubrick, Barbara Loden and the documentarians the Maysles brothers as among his strongest influences. Although now he is at the very top of the French film industry, Audiard says that the prizes Beat won have not changed his life. "It's like honey. You don't work for that, but it's nice." Audiard, 53, comes from a family of filmmakers (his father and uncle were directors and producers) and started out as an assistant editor, working with Roman Polanski on The Tenant. In the Eighties, he began a successful career as a screenwriter and wrote such critically acclaimed and original films as Baxter (1989), a very serious film told from the perspective of a dog, and Venus Beauty Institute (1999), the story of several women working in a beauty parlor which was a showcase both for veteran actresses such as Nathalie Baye and Bulle Ogier, as well as up and coming stars like Audrey Tautou. He turned to directing with the psychological crime drama See How They Fall in 1994 and does not take his transition to the director's chair for granted. "I always worry about my work. With every movie, it's like starting over," he says. He is currently writing several scripts and complains that "I work very slowly. I started late [as a director]. I don't have time to do anything else. I'm 53. At 53, there is not too much time."