'A Prophet' Heralds a New Wave of French Auteurs

Ever since the French new wave of the 1950s and 1960s, few French filmmakers have gone on to find wider international fame. With rare exception—most notably, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 romantic comedy Amélie—French cinema has flourished primarily in France, where it enjoys a robust system of public subsidies and protection from Hollywood imports.

Now Jacques Audiard is poised to become the next native director to move into the global spotlight. His latest film, A Prophet—a heart-pounding gangster movie set in a French prison—has already raked in $10 million at the French box office, won last year's Jury Prize at Cannes, and took best film at the recent British Film Festival. It will be France's nominee for best foreign film at this year's Oscars. And as it opens across Europe and America this month, Audiard is bound to win comparisons to the giants of French cinema.

Like New Wave auteurs François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who combined an enthusiasm for Hollywood with then-innovative techniques like jump cuts and nonnarrative sequencing, Audiard seeks to go beyond conventional filmmaking and happy endings. He helped found a group of industry professionals known as Le Club des 13, which is challenging the way movies are made in France. The group, which includes directors Pascale Ferran and Claude Miller, sees a widening gap in state funding between poor-quality big-budget blockbusters and small art-house films and is urging more support for medium-budget movies that manage to retain artistic merit.

A Prophet tells the ferocious coming-of-age story of Malik (Tahar Rahim), a French Arab who enters prison a frightened teen and leaves several years later an enterprising young man in charge of a vast drug-smuggling operation. Along the way, he endures solitary confinement and racially charged gang violence. The film skillfully addresses the issues of ostracism and crime among French Muslims while managing to be thoroughly entertaining. Like Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 La Haine—set in an impoverished banlieue outside Paris—A Prophet resonates with disaffected youth living on society's fringes, despite the fact that Audiard comes from a very different world.

Though he didn't make his directorial debut until age 41, Audiard was born into filmmaking. His father, Michel, was a prolific screenwriter who penned a number of French gangster flicks, and Audiard got his start working with such icons as Roman Polanski. His previous four films include 2005's The Beat That My Heart Skipped, about a rough-and-tumble property developer who tries to rekindle his dream of becoming a concert pianist. And he showed a playful side vaguely reminiscent of the old New Wave auteurs in the 1996 comedy A Self-Made Hero, in which family portraits come to life and characters perform deadpan monologues into the camera.

Now Audiard is hoping to merge two traditionally opposing ideas in contemporary French cinema: art and commercial success. It's a risky proposition. In 2004 a French court ruled that Jeunet's follow-up to Amélie, A Very Long Engagement, was not sufficiently "French" to enter national festivals or receive state funding—despite being made in France with French actors—because it was backed by Warner Bros. French directors who make it in Hollywood can make it anywhere, except maybe France.