Un Prophète (A Prophet), the French nominee for the best foreign film Oscar in 2010, is a revolutionary step in French cinema and the world entertainment business. It’s an epic crime story, but it’s not told from the top down, giving us the “big picture,” like most epics. This story is told from the bottom up, so its power builds and feels intensely real. Not only does this make for a great film, it marks the move in French film from art house cinema to competitor with the U.S. in worldwide genre filmmaking.
France has produced many genre films in the past. For example, before directing Un Prophète, Jacques Audiard made Read My Lips, a solid if unexceptional crime-thriller. But French film for decades has been trapped by the auteur theory and the art films that inevitably result from the belief that movies are all about the director’s vision. What you get is quirky, navel-gazing dramas that no one but the director’s family wants to see. What you don’t get is a good story. And that’s what the audience, not just French but worldwide, demands.
The key to telling a story with worldwide appeal is genre.
But with the stranglehold of the auteur theory and art house film, most French writers and writer-directors disdained genre storytelling as predictable American fare appealing to the lowest common denominator. Not wanting to make American films in French, they worked around the edges of genre, so the films were neither good genre films nor good art films.
With Un Prophète, writers Thomas Bidegain, Audiard, Abdel Raouf Dafri, and Nicolas Peufaillit have found a way to overcome the false distinction between genre film and art film and instead make a genre film that is a work of art. They’ve found a strategy that allows them to borrow from the best of French film tradition and at the same time punch the elements of genre that make it the worldwide standard for popular storytelling.
That strategy is what I call in my 22 Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes “transcending the genre,” which involves twisting all the beats of the particular form and adding drama elements to make the story stand out from all the other films of its kind.
To understand how this advanced script works, we need to focus on the genres on which this story is founded. Genres aren’t a formula for writing. Each genre is a contained story world expressed through a contained story form.
Though set within a prison, Un Prophète is a gangster story, which is a sub-form of the crime genre. Like all gangster stories, it is about success in the modern world, shorthanded as “the American Dream,” and how that Dream has been corrupted from its original idea of success as spiritual attainment to success as material gain.
These writers know their gangster form cold, borrowing from such classics as The Godfather (one of the mafia prisoners is even named Corleoni), Goodfellas and even the gangster-Western Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars. Knowing the beats of your genre is the first step in writing a successful screenplay, because the entire worldwide entertainment business is based on repeating popular story forms.
Just as in those classic gangster films, Malik, the hero in Un Prophète, must climb up the organization and use illegal and immoral methods to succeed. He begins as an illiterate 19-year-old with no family. So he starts as close to the bottom as you can get. The writers then track his climb up the ladder, and they excel at placing him in one impossible predicament after another. This technique of the impossible predicament works well in any genre, because it keeps maximum pressure on the hero during the difficult middle section where 90% of scripts fail.
The second step in writing a successful script for the international market is to twist the beats of the form and add drama elements. As Audiard has said, “I like the stylization of a genre film. It’s a way to accelerate the connection with the spectator. Here is the good guy, here is the bad guy. But once the spectator has agreed to get on board, then it’s up the filmmaker to become more subtle and break from the confines of the genre.”
To break the confines of crime, the writers of Un Prophète have borrowed a number of techniques from the advanced screenwriting/Masterpiece form. As in all masterpiece films, Malik is trapped in a system. But by starting with the naïve young hero first entering prison, he and the audience have only fleeting glimpses of what that enslaving system might be. Like Buonasera in the opening of The Godfather, Malik has to piece together the hierarchy of the system on the run, under extreme pressure, and figure out how to play the system before it kills him.
Un Prophète also twists the beats of the gangster and masterpiece forms in the way the hero grows. Starting Malik as an innocent 19-year-old makes him a clean slate. In prison, he not only learns the ways of crime, he takes classes in reading and economics. By the end of the story he hasn’t just experienced the simple character change we see in most stories. He has gone on a complex journey of learning on many levels of the story: in business, in religion, in character, crime and family.
The storytelling weave in this script is quite complex and advanced. The main technique the writers use to create such an intricate plot has to do with one of the seven major structure steps, the desire line (see the 22 Step Great Screenwriting Class). Stated simply, Malik goes from being a reactive hero with a weak desire line to being an active hero with a strong desire.
It may surprise you to know that this is the same fundamental strategy that writers Laurent Cantet, Robin Campillo, and Francois Bégaudeau used in the true story-drama, Entre Les Murs (read my structure breakdown of Entre Les Murs.) It’s a strategy that can work in any of the major genres, but it’s very hard to pull off.
Starting with a weak desire line is usually a bad idea, because the story quickly collapses without narrative drive. But the weak opening desire in Un Prophète and Entre Les Murs doesn’t come from writers who don’t know how to give the hero a strong goal. They purposely deprive the hero of a strong desire at the beginning so they can intensify the reality of the hero’s situation. Malik begins as a loser, a 19-year-old illiterate entering prison for a six-year term. This guy’s only goal is to survive and he doesn’t even know how to do that. The early scenes are raw and brutal, and the drama comes from forcing the audience, along with the hero, to wallow in the horror of the experience.
Once that’s been established, as only film can, the second part of the strategy is to give the hero a stronger and more specific desire line as the story progresses. Notice that this technique allows the writers to express the deeper theme of the film not just in the content – Malik becoming more successful and powerful – but also through the form and structure of the storytelling – a character who is more conscious, focused and driven. This has a more powerful effect on the audience because it is working on them below the surface.
Again I want to caution writers that this strategy is very risky. If you deprive the hero of a goal for too long, you lose the audience, and they are very hard to win back. But if you weave and pace the story right, the audience gets to have their cake and eat it too. They get the gritty feel of harsh reality that only film can bring, and they get the pleasure of great storytelling that comes from a main character gaining a progressively stronger desire.
This building desire line makes the intricacy of the plot possible because it literally becomes the spine on which the complexity hangs. As the hero’s goal becomes stronger, the writers add more plot lines, both outside and inside the prison. From this innocent clean slate of a character, for whom plotting seems impossible, the branches of plot spread out until everything connects and the system is laid bare in all its terrible logic.
The script for Un Prophète is worth careful study by anyone wishing to write screenplays in the current worldwide entertainment business, and especially by French writers and directors. I believe this is a landmark film for French cinema, because it represents a liberation, a breaking free of the shackles of auteur theory and the art house film that has ghettoized French cinema for decades. The writers of Un Prophète have planted a flag that says, “We French screenwriters and filmmakers have finally entered the arena of international genre filmmaking, and we are here to win.”