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Self-Made Antiheroes

When he was 14 years old, Jacques Audiard was asked by a famous cinematographer when he was going to start making his own movies. ”I was a terrible brat,“ says Audiard, who’s in town to plug his stylish black comedy Read My Lips (Sur Mes Levres). ”I told him, ‘When I fail at everything else.’“ Audiard grew up surrounded by film people: His uncle was a producer, his godfather an actor, and his father, Michel Audiard, was a prolific screenwriter who wrote more than 130 films before turning to directing. Audiard pere regarded his own writing and directing as a day job; his real passions were literature and music, and the creative tension between high and pop culture, along with a corrosively iconoclastic sense of humor, appears to have rubbed off on his son in more ways than one. Read My Lips, an audacious tale -- part character study, part social comedy, part gangster movie -- of an unholy union between an embittered, hearing-impaired secretary and a cerebrally ungifted jailbird, was inspired by both The Honeymoon Killers and the myth of Orpheus.

A pipe-smoking 50-year-old in black sunglasses who talks a mile a minute, Audiard fils looks like a cross between a grunge hipster and a nerdy professor. In the years he spent avoiding a movie career, he studied philosophy and literature with the vague a intention of becoming an academic. Only in his 30s did he come around and begin working as an assistant film editor, until his wife, Marion Vernoux (a writer-director with whom he worked on the screenplay for the lively 2000 French comedy Venus Beauty Institute), convinced him that he was ”no stupider than the rest of the writers,“ and he started writing screenplays. Baxter, a 1988 film that Audiard co-wrote with director Jerome Boivin, about a dog with homicidal impulses and a taste for submission, grew into such a cult hit that some Disney executives expressed interest in a remake -- until they caught a whiff of the antic amorality that powers the movie, as it does all of Audiard‘s work. ”There are more surprises in amorality,“ says Audiard. ”It renews itself every time.“

It wasn’t until he turned 40 that Audiard directed his first film, Regarde les Hommes Tomber (See How They Fall), a wonderfully odd male-bonding piece with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Matthieu Kassovitz as two con men. He‘s made only two movies since: 1996’s Un Hero Tres Discret (A Self-Made Hero), the brilliantly mordant tale of a provincial Frenchman (played by both Kassovitz and Trintignant), the only child of a pair of Nazi collaborators, who passes himself off as a World War II resistance fighter and becomes a national hero; and Read My Lips, in which an unlikely love relationship grows in direct proportion to the criminal tendencies of the protagonists. Audiard clearly loves the visceral pull of the noir thriller, but like the moviemakers he obligingly reels off as favorites -- Wong Kar-Wai, Scorsese, Lynch, the Coen brothers, and the French directors Arnaud Desplechin and Maurice Pialat -- he focuses on his characters, hilariously, terrifyingly unsympathetic ordinary Joes who transform themselves by robbing, killing, lying and, finally, loving.

Read My Lips is a beautifully crafted diversion, but A Self-Made Hero remains Audiard‘s most satisfying film, as well as his most political. Though it was based on a novel by Jean-Francois Deniau (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Audiard), the movie was inspired by The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’ extraordinary 1971 documentary about French wartime collaboration with the Nazis. ”I was born in 1952, so I am a perfect product of the postwar generation,“ says Audiard. ”And because of that I grew up in a lie. When The Sorrow and the Pity came out, I learned something I didn‘t know. What interested me was how to reconstitute that historical moment, how to talk about lying.“ It’s a measure of how little France has advanced in facing up to its history that A Self-Made Hero got Audiard into the same hot water that scalded Ophuls 30 years earlier. (Some even accused Audiard of making a right-wing movie.) Audiard didn‘t involve himself in the controversy, but he’s unrepentant and forthright about his country‘s tainted past -- and present. ”It is quite obvious that France is a country of collaborators, and that it’s anti-Semitic, but the debate has never gone there,“ says Audiard. ”We should just admit it, and move on.“