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In Film, a Flair for Restraint

Jacques Audiard's personal style nears over-the-top, but his movies embrace simplicity.

July 17, 2002|SORINA DIACONESCU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his native France, Jacques Audiard, the director of a thriller-cum-love-story genre-bender called "Read My Lips" that opens in Los Angeles on Friday, is thought an elegantly cerebral artist.

But if his films--a series of exercises in subtlety--excel at self-restraint, in person Audiard doesn't. During a recent interview, he wore a silk scarf, smoked a pipe and piled on adjectives with Gallic aplomb.

"It's truly gratifying to see my films reach beyond a familiar public, to get a chance to move new audiences. It's nuts. It's extraordinary," he enthused in his native tongue last week, as he sat in a West Hollywood cafe taking alternate sips of espresso and water. ("I find the water better than the coffee," he announced.)

Audiard, who at 50 still looks a bit like the graduate students seen hanging out on Paris' Left Bank, was in town for a screening of his three films--Audiard works at a very deliberate pace--at the Egyptian Theatre over the weekend. "Read My Lips," which opened in New York earlier this month, was praised by the New York Times for its "many surprising satisfactions" and called "serious and rather audacious" by the New Yorker. In France, Audiard's coolly detached directorial style has earned him comparisons to Hitchcock.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 206 words Type of Material: Correction
Audiard film title--In a Wednesday Calendar story about French director Jacques Audiard, the title of his first film was incorrect. It is called "See How They Fall."
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On this side of the Atlantic, the film is a far cry from recent French exports, for the most part souffle-light comedies like "Amelie" or kinetic romps like "Brotherhood of the Wolf"--movies that have been easily digested by American audiences. "Read My Lips," with its intellectually engaging narrative, seems to have less commercial appeal; unlike "Amelie" it was not a huge mainstream hit in France.

That does not bother Audiard, who said that his job is simply to make movies and that he is not greatly preoccupied with what happens to them afterward. But, he observed wryly, "this film has brought greater joys to me than to its producer."

The movie contains elements of film noir, thriller and dark comedy, and it defies easy categorization. At its center are the umbilical-cord ties between two unlikely partners that flourish into a peculiar kind of love.

"With 'Read My Lips,' I wanted to make a film in which two people experience a love story, but not in the way we're used to seeing it--a woman meets a man, they kiss, they sleep with each other," explained Audiard. "Here, there is a purity in their relationship." The would-be lovers are Carla, a hearing-impaired secretary who works in a claustrophobic Parisian office, and Paul, the thuggishly handsome ex-con she hires on as a temporary worker.

By day they hum along as worker bees in the corporate compound; by night they turn partners in crime, in a plot that effectively weaves in Carla's lip-reading skill. As the two become entangled in ever-graver transgressions, their relationship grows stronger.

While the film has the tug of a classic thriller, the director insisted that the underlying theme is one woman's journey, as she learns to succumb to love. "Carla's objective is to be loved," said Audiard. "She finds this young man who is brutal, dumb, awkward, and she educates him to become a good lover, someone in whose arms she can surrender herself."

In "Read My Lips," emotion has a reined-in quality; it seems to course through the picture at a subterranean level. The erotic attraction between Carla and Paul is played out in strange, small gestures: She brushes his discarded shirt against her cheek and hugs his sleeping bag. Audiard is fascinated by this kind of offbeat relationship. In his 1994 debut movie "Watch Them Fall," he told the story of two con men tangled up in a similarly peculiar partnership.

"What I was interested in when I was making 'Watch Them Fall' was this kind of strange relationship, which has died in cinema," said Audiard. He was referring to the kind of ties that he feels were once at the core of the Western genre--"friendly relationships between men that are very singular, strongly sexual, like the one between Dean Martin and John Wayne in 'Rio Bravo.' " A rabid filmgoer, Audiard is particularly a fan of old Hollywood pictures and American directors from the '30s, like Howard Hawks and John Ford. "I have a passion for John Huston," said the French filmmaker. "I cry every time I see 'Fat City.' John Huston was an old man when he made it, but it's a film of adolescence. It has the spirit of an 18-year-old."

Screenwriting has been Audiard's favorite craft, although now that he also directs, he is not so sure anymore. "I used to find in writing the most intense excitement, almost like sexual pleasure," he said. His father, Michel Audiard, was one of the most celebrated screenwriters working in France in the '50s and '60s, but Audiard resisted the urge to follow in his footsteps. He concentrated instead on the study of philosophy and only came to movies in his early 30s.

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