March 2019

Arts & Letters

A French Western? Jacques Audiard on ‘The Sisters Brothers’

By Harry Windsor
The celebrated director explains how he made a Hollywood staple his own

Jacques Audiard is busy writing his next film, a musical set in Mexico, when I interrupt him to talk about his latest. The Sisters Brothers, the filmmaker’s first English-language film and a Western to boot, premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and screens around Australia later this month as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival. Audiard will be in attendance in Sydney and Melbourne, but when we meet in Paris he admits promotional duties are the farthest thing from his mind. The director is sitting with a MacBook on his lap, in a tearoom – designed by Catherine Deneuve, no less – with the roughly cylindrical dimensions of a light-filled submarine. We’re on the second floor of the Cinéma du Panthéon, a single-screen theatre that doubles as the headquarters for Why Not Productions, the auteur-nurturing independent outfit with whom Audiard has made his last five features.

At 66 years old, Audiard is all sinew, resembling a more stylish James Carville in selvedge jeans, a crimson beanie and cravat (a perennial) tied just so. One of the most garlanded French directors of his generation, he’s a previous winner of the Grand Prix and Palme d’Or at Cannes, and his raw-boned dramas about violent men have seen him dubbed, not least by The New York Times, the “French Scorsese”. He’s probably best known to English-language audiences for the one-two punch of 2009 prison movie A Prophet and 2012’s Rust and Bone, in which a legless Marion Cotillard tames a sexy bruiser played by Matthias Schoenaerts. His new film is something different, close to a jaunt but tinged with melancholy.

Audiard was promoting Rust and Bone on the festival circuit when he met Alison Dickey, a producer and the wife of American actor John C. Reilly. Dickey pitched him an adaptation of The Sisters Brothers, a book by Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt, whose affectless, very funny prose has led to comparisons with Wes Anderson (only blacker than pitch, frequently violent and scatological). Though he’s got the violence down pat, the director was surprised the novel came his way. “It would never have occurred to me as a French person to make a Western,” he tells me. The Western is foundational ground for Americans and American moviemakers, but not for Audiard, and he wasn’t particularly interested in making one. “But I read the book, and it was wonderful.”

DeWitt’s novel is about two brothers (played in the film by Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) making a living as mercenaries in 1850s Oregon. They’re on the trail of a chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), with a mission to extract, by whatever means necessary, his formula for divining gold. Audiard and his writing partner Thomas Bidegain set about beefing up the character of the chemist as well as John Morris (  Jake Gyllenhaal), a verbose dandy who joins him, touched by Warm’s dream of using the gold to finance a utopian community – in Dallas. The film proceeds on parallel timelines as the brothers pursue the prospectors, and it climaxes not at their convergence but later, after the four have shared a sweet, short-lived idyll.

Audiard is a fan of certain American Westerns made during the 1960s and ’70s – Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks, Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – but less so the ones that came earlier. He’s especially allergic to those films fronted by “the cowboy on the horse with the big gun”, the type he describes as “the John Wayne character”. Discomfort with that archetype might be one reason that so many contemporary Westerns, from the Zellner brothers’ Damsel to the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (to name two from the last 12 months) are so determinedly arch. “Maybe what current directors are trying to do is put back the human aspect into these characters,” says Audiard. “Giving them little problems of their own.”

Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli (Reilly) are loquacious rather than taciturn, sensitive instead of stoic. They have fireside arguments about the use of the word “victimised” to describe their boss, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in a wordless cameo that was surely more substantial in the script). The mannered Morris drives Charlie to distraction by using words such as “precipitate” and “phalanstery”. Much of the wordplay feels like a hangover from the book, a little too quirkily self-conscious. But all the long, needling conversations give the brothers a chance to work through their grievances, from their unequal pay packets to the violent legacy of their father.

Surprisingly for a man whose previous films include plentiful shivving, torture and even a sustained machete attack through a tower block, Audiard claims he was put off by the savagery of some of the early oaters. “The brutality of the founding fathers, the genocide, that very brutal conquest. And the narratives that denied the genocide. There’s no humanity to the characters, and there were a lot of stereotypes.”

His foray into the genre is a curious hybrid, subverting some of its conventions while upholding others. Audiard’s pair of gunslingers might be self-conscious but they’re also typically invulnerable, making short work of anyone fool enough to try them. The director’s aim was to carve a furrow of his own, he says, neither neoclassical nor postmodern in the Tarantino vein. “I wanted to make an ‘appeased Western’, about characters finding peace within themselves for the first time since they were kids.”

The desire to forge his own path meant doing so quite literally. After scouting the route from Portland to San Francisco along which the film takes place, Audiard travelled to Alberta, Canada, but found all the Western towns clés en main. “The sets are still there, it’s all been done before.” The production eventually shot in Romania and Spain, making use, somewhat ironically, of landscapes previously photographed by Sergio Leone. But having to build most everything was, the filmmaker says, necessary to liberate his imagination. The same thing happened on A Prophet, when he visited real prisons across Europe but found they only obscured his ability to see the film, and to think about it inventively.

Audiard cast non-actors in his last film, Dheepan, a story of Tamil refugees on a French housing estate, but for this one he was excited to work with Hollywood veterans. “American actors master a craft, a métier. It’s like a science for them. In French, there are two words for actor: acteur and comédien. In English, there’s only one. American actors know where the camera is all the time, and they make many films a year, so they’ll only give you a month. But they come to set with the character already constructed, and they can offer you various versions.” Gyllenhaal employed a team of researchers, feeding him period-specific information about speech and posture. The director found he dispensed almost entirely with the kind of psychological explication he was accustomed to providing for his actors.

The Sisters Brothers is more diffuse than Audiard’s earlier work, more leisurely – a fact that he readily owns. “Westerns are very linear and epic,” he said after September’s Venice premiere. “There’s no suspense.” (The publicist must have loved that one.) The closest thing to it comes in the opening scene, as Audiard’s long-time composer Alexandre Desplat brings up low strings over a black screen. The only visible light comes from muzzle flashes in the distance, as the brothers storm a remote farmhouse. The director initially talked to his cinematographer, Benoît Debie, about shooting the film entirely at night, aiming for something “very visual but not realistic”. He also wanted a visual echo of the story’s historical framework, which he considers previous to “the dawn of democracy” – a transitional moment that was also the subject of Liberty Valance.

Jacques Audiard’s first screenwriting credit was in 1974, on a comedy co-written and directed by his father, Michel Audiard, one of postwar French cinema’s most famous screenwriters. (He remains so after his death, with some of Audiard père’s bon mots as well known in his own country as those of, say, Billy Wilder in America.) Jacques also worked as a sound mixer for Costa-Gavras and as an assistant editor for Roman Polanski (on The Tenant) before embarking on a prolific career as a screenwriter, only turning to directing in the mid 1990s.

Audiard has described his father as a brilliant writer but a rubbish director, and he’s bristled in the past when journalists have brought him up. The temptation to do so is formidable, however, given the recurrence in the younger man’s films of absent or surrogate fathers, and of sons trying to unburden themselves of inherited legacies. In A Prophet, a young French-Algerian (Tahar Rahim) is taken under the wing of a Corsican mob boss (Niels Arestrup) he ultimately rejects and replaces. Rust and Bone and Dheepan are explicitly about men abrogating the responsibilities of fatherhood before finally accepting them.

In The Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie worry about passing on the tainted blood of their father, a violent drunk whose viciousness they not only share but have also made a professional guarantee. In one enigmatic dream sequence, in which the filmmaker daringly makes use of what look like shadow puppets, Eli sees his father at a chopping block, surrounded by hacked limbs. Later, in a brothel, he staggers past a prostitute playing with a shadow paper chain as he tries to rouse a drunken Charlie, who killed their father but is slowly becoming him. Morris, for his part, realises that in running from his old man his entire life he has ultimately been defined by him.

The preponderance of these subjects in his work is, claims Audiard, “a mystery”. So too the way in which they inform which projects he takes on. He gestures around the room. “I had lunch with my ex-sister-in-law here after she saw the film. She talked about my brother, François, who died [in a car crash] when he was young. And I hadn’t even made the connection until she mentioned it.” The Sisters Brothers is the story of two children who never grew up, and it almost resembles a fairytale. Eli and Charlie, notes the director, are “like children wandering in a dark forest, whistling because they’re scared”.

The film ends with a metaphorical return to the womb. Audiard cast Carol Kane as the boys’ mother because she reminded him of Lillian Gish, the gun-toting protector of children in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Laughton’s film is justly celebrated for the beauty of its expressionist images, and images, says Audiard, are what you remember. “They’re the reason you make the film. There are a few things I like [in this]: the horse on fire crossing the screen; Eli cutting his brother’s hair; the river, illuminated.”

Images are also where the director can evade boredom, he says, even if themes repeat. “Some people think I always make the same film, but I’m always looking for a different form, specific to the film.” And The Sisters Brothers is subtly idiosyncratic, with aesthetic flourishes that come out of nowhere and never recur. At one point Phoenix directly addresses the camera as though he’s a talking head in a documentary. There’s also some erratic voiceover, delivered not by the brothers but by Morris, whose diary entries play over scenes they record, in a kind of ghostly fusion of the real and recollected.

The long single take on which the film ends harmonises nicely with the figures in the frame, who look as though they’re exhaling for the first time in decades. And though The Sisters Brothers might till some of the same ground as Audiard’s earlier films, it also distinguishes itself by culminating not with an eruption of violence but with its dissipation. That optimism will continue, says the director, on his next film, the Mex-musical he thinks will be shot mainly on green-screen soundstages (a first) in English and Spanish (another first). He’s keen to work with American actors again, too, full of praise for the preparedness and economy of the likes of Gyllenhaal. “And,” says Audiard, “he can sing, too.”

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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