i have to say i enjoyed watching this film like a kid opening presents at christmas: full of tension and excitement and delight, even though you also always get some things you didn´t ask for.
and even though i´m not particularly aroused by thrillers, action films, gangster films, "big" films and films with a lot of male violence, i confess: i did really like the experience.
first of all, and this is a personal answer, because it has an arab and a prison at its core and these are two motives that both interest me deeply. architectures of power and punishment and the supposed peripheral strangers and outsiders of western society.
i must also mention that malik, the hero, played by tahar rahim, is plainly brilliant from start to end and the cast of the film is convincing and "real" to a remarkable extent.
it is a film of physicality, of bodies and body textures, inscribed stories, experienced power, scarred faces, searching eyes like scared animals infront of car lights, flinching hands and heads, glimpses of insecurity, of hate, of joy and excitement, clenched fists, anger and despair.
what is really strange about the way malik is drawn is that on the one hand he is a complete cinematic cliché, yet on the other he is as empty and tabula rasa of a figure like the face of isabelle huppert or the bressonian and dardenne characters that we experience through their mere gestures and ways of moving through space.
the clichéd, written outline of his character couldn´t be more conventional:
a homeless, fatherless, abandoned boy is sent to jail and encounters a surrogate father (the corsican mafioso boss luciani), who he learns from but eventually must "kill" to make it a proper oedipal tragedy and in order to become a self, -meaning of course a MAN, with a family that at the end of the film just sits there waiting for him at the day of his release from prison.
this of course is rather boring, ideological and not all too beguiling, if you ask me. -but, if you manage to lay aside patronizing, male, pseudo-serious mafioso blurb, an all too commercial use of music and the glorification of killing, shooting and beating the shit out of people, you will still find an abundant amount of moments of beauty, life, humanity and poetry, -although in a very full-frontal, in-your-face manner, but what the hell, audiard is obviously trying to adress a larger audience and you don´t have to condemn that as a premise (although when i´m in a radical mood i do).
starting from the first flash light iris shot of malik, which is a recurrent aesthetical theme of the film and beautifully reminiscent of the old cinema iris-out technique and alluding to the lonely searchings of someone lost in the woods with only a small light, that will not illuminate the scene more than a meter or two and leave you with a feeling of gloominess and something strange out there, that you cannot know and cannot see, the film meanders through the male power structures and hierarchies in a radically personal perspective, often also emphasized by a point-of-view camera style that puts us right into malik´s shoes and struggles to learn and survive a vicious circle of violence and domination.
another beautiful image is the washing of bloody meat (to be precise the meat of a deer that had caused a car accident with some gangsters that malik had contemplated like a "prophet") in the salty water of the sea in marseille. and i so love the idea of marseille: this french, poor, dirty, dubious and exciting city facing a vast ocean with the idea of africa ahead and these small islands on which prisons stand and evoke the sense for crime and transgression and this glowing, dark, promising, vicious ocean in its brutal beauty softly flowing to and fro on the long, filthy beaches.
or the many scenes when baguette is brought to the prisoners and put on the bare tables like books or the newspaper.
the images are raw and strong. yet still there is something fundamentally ideologic about this film that i do not like at all.
-yes, audiard does make an arab his hero, but what does he show us? that the arab is just as much of an opportunist, sly, power searching vilain as the corsican, the french, or whoever. on the one hand, great, at least it´s not rascist, but on the other hand, come on, can´t it get any better than that?
what is just breathtaking to watch, is someone with so much balls and courage, manoevering through a system of exploitation and repression in such an elegant and efficient way.
it is just as satisfying as watching a plant grow in the most outraging and hard to survive environment. the notion of someone living by his own law, undisturbed by anybody else, with some sort of basic moral code and then fucking the system over to be some sort of winner in the end, satiesfies the viewer, but is this the cheap and base kind of satisfaction that we feel when we have also been able to exploit a system for us, make a good deal by screwing someone, or is it something more?
in truth, malik is of course a loser. this is ironically suggested by a huge line of big mafioso cars following him on the triumphant day of his release, with some sort of ironic music playing. but i don´t know if i really like that ending.
someone who has killed as many people as malik in this film will not have the face of a lamb anymore and will be lost, lonely and disturbed to a visible and bodily extent. he will basically be completely morally raped and this of course is not shown in the film, as the filmmakers want us to feel good about malik and his development from an orphan to a gangster boss, which is just kind of lame. precisely because the glimpses of irrational beauty, of life and the resistance to machistic shit in the film are to me the best moments:
when malik is in marseille and instead of getting sucked like his other gangster companion, he prefers to stay by the sea.
or when he makes a tasteless yet touching joke about the testicle cancer of his friend by putting two balls of dope on the table, showing his inability to acknowledge the desease, but also courage to laugh about it and not demoralize his friend.
the film emphasizes the "success" you can have, when everyone uses each other, like malik says to the arabs, when he bribes the imam with a huge sum of money:
why not use each other if everyone is happy in the end?
well of course we are constantly looking for things in others that we don´t have ourselves and are reliant on, so we seek to obtain them, either through supposed idealistic love or in a much more base and unpretending way through money. if we are honest about it, most of our relationships function this way: we pay for something and we get something in return. so is the economy of our way of living.
but does it really work? and are we not emotionally corrupt if we don´t learn how to refuse and resist the things we actually don´t agree with morally and at least try to live in a better way, instead of using the system we were smart enough to figure out, to advance for ourselves?
wouldn´t it have been much more exciting if malik instead of using the whole, corrupt prison hierarchy for himself had maybe just tried to escape when he was in marseille and then sailed off to africa and started some sort of crazy business like opening a center for reactionary males where they can rest and do experimental drawings or pottery or something like that?
i think i would have loved the film even more, if malik wasn´t just a boss in his own name as a part of the system, but if he had also found the courage to spit that system in the face and walk out on it and not kill 5 french dudes in the city center of paris to become rich with casinos. and since he is just a written figure, i really don´t see why it couldn´t have gone another way.
because what people also really love to see, is someone being brave enough to express his sense of morality, altruism and humanity and stand up for it and not be such a sly and slick manipulator.
what is the meaning of a killing?
i do not really know, but as i know that nothing happens without consequences, a killing is always also a death of oneself and these issues of guilt and lost innocence are not negotiated at all in the film.
in the film malik can shoot 5 people dead smiling and go to sleep with a baby lying on his chest that same evening. and that, i do find kind of fucked up.
sometimes i thought death is just dealt with in a surrealist acte gratuite-fashion, like in the novels of andré gide or camus (even though i also have my issues with the surrealist, romantic transfiguration of killing): someone is shot and killed and it is completely random, arbitrary and senseless and thereby truthful, as every death is senseless and there is no higher meaning to it.
but in this case, the deaths aren´t just arbitrary, it´s not a fool shooting in the masses, but someone with an economic interest killing someone specific. so i can´t do otherwise but think that this is really disgusting and that i don´t like seeing the beautiful, innocent boy face of malik at the end of the film, when truthfully he should have become a deranged animal.
but nevertheless, as all things are complex, i still did enjoy this film very much.
this so well crafted, suspenseful assemblage of the metaphysical, the prison, the arab, the poetic recital in islam, the beautiful written tableaus that divide the film into chapters, the emphasis on the importance of writing (malik learns to write in the prison) and remembering (the first man malik kills returns in his dreams and lives with him as a sort of manifested consciousness), the moments of epiphany when the prisoners throw burning papers out of their cell windows at night to moarn the death of their companion, the dirty face of a drugged, lost boy singing and raving on christmas in the prison with his inmates.
it is truly a beautiful film (and it simultaneously has some problematic issues).