Days after Hilary Mantel became the first woman to win the Man Booker twice, French director Jacques Audiard won his second award for best picture at the London Film Festival with Rust and Bone, his follow-up to the similarly lauded A Prophet.
The two films are very different – one is about a young Arab man in a French jail, the other is a love story – but they are unmistakably Audiard in style: bold, stylish pieces with towering performances at their core. In the case of Rust and Bone, a star is confirmed in Marion Cotillard, who plays Stephanie, a trainer of killer whales, and another is born in her co-star, Matthias Schoenaerts, playing the bare-knuckle fighter she befriends.
Speaking before the award for best film was announced, Audiard said he had wanted to work with Cotillard for a long time, and particularly since seeing her as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, for which she won an Oscar.
"She is a very attractive woman, very sexually incarnated and at the same time somehow masculine. She's like a man in some ways. She has authority. And brutality. She's a tough girl."
After The Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, both crime dramas, Audiard had acquired a reputation as a director fascinated by modern (French) man. He never wanted to be pigeonholed that way, however.
"My ex-wife always told me you are always filming men like women," he laughs. "I think she was quite right." But at the same time, he says, he focused on men because he was working on crime dramas where they are more likely to be involved. Even then, in his thriller Read My Lips, there was a strong female character playing opposite Vincent Cassel's ex-con.
Similarly, Audiard does not see Rust and Bone as a huge departure from A Prophet, different as they are from each other. One film informs the other, he says.
"You make one film based on what you have done before. We did A Prophet – a story about men, a claustrophobic story, no light, no women, no love – so our desire [in Rust and Bone] was to go to the opposite." Filmed in Cannes and other locations, Rust and Bone does not want for sea, sand and sun (or snow and ice, for that matter).
With a screenplay written by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, who also co-wrote A Prophet, Rust and Bone is based upon a short story by Craig Davidson, with one significant change – the male character in Davidson's Canadian-set tale becomes a French woman in Audiard's film.
Trading a man for a woman was less complicated than teaching the woman to work with killer whales. Cotillard went to a water park for a week.
"The purpose was not for her to train but for the whales to get used to her," says Audiard. "Those animals are very dangerous. Magnificent too."
Cotillard would get close enough to the whales to touch them, and after a week they were beginning to get used to her. But while Audiard and Bidegain were finishing the script there were a couple of attacks in water parks elsewhere. After that, says Audiard, the decision was taken that no human should swim with Orcas. "It didn't make our life easier. We had to adapt," he says.
In awarding Rust and Bone first prize, Sir David Hare, president of the official competition jury of the London Film Festival, paid tribute to what he called Audiard's "unique handwriting, made up of music, montage, writing, photography, sound, visual design and acting".
Audiard's reputation as a director who could do it all, and tell stories that were as moving as they were thrilling, was cemented with A Prophet. The film was controversial in France, says Audiard, and not just because it showed a side of French life – competing criminal gangs – about which the country was uneasy. It was also seen as strange for a big-budget film to be based around a young Arab lead (Tahar Rahim, whom it made a star, was born in France but is of Algerian descent).
Yet that was part of the plan from the off, he says. "It was the idea behind the project, a political idea." Before A Prophet, says Audiard, it was unheard-of to have a leading man who was of Arab descent. There was a large Arab community in France but they were not seen on the cinema screen. "Representation in the cinema is like representation in politics."
Audiard also courted controversy with A Self-Made Hero, a tale of a boy finding out what his parents really did in the Second World War. It was not based on his own experiences, but it struck a nerve with a lot of French people of his generation.
"It wasn't my story but it was the story of a lot of people, the story that had to be believed so you could keep on living in France."
Audiard's father was a director and screenwriter. It would have been natural for Audiard junior to follow him into the film trade, but for a long time the youngster rejected the idea as "too easy" and tried his hand at training to be a teacher instead. "Retrospectively it was stupid," he says, but he was genuinely torn between books and the cinema. "With my father, most of the conversations I would have would be about literature and not cinema."
After the multi-Oscar winning The Artist and Untouchable, French cinema is having something of a moment in the sun. When Bidegain is asked if it was nice to suddenly be so fashionable, he laughs. "I don't think it's fashionable, I think it's not as repellent as it was before. At one point in the States it was almost impossible to see French films: people would not go and see films with subtitles, see stuff from a different culture. Nowadays they tend to accept it. It's part of general globalisation maybe."
Only a handful of French films make it into the mainstream, says Audiard. It's an improvement on none, but there's still a way to go.
As for Audiard and his interest in working in the States, he sees himself as very much a director in the European mould. Any director has to have something to say about the place he lives in, he says, and "I'm not American, I'm European." European directors can work all over, he adds, pointing to Austrian director Michael Haneke making Amour, a film in French, set in Paris. Haneke can make a film in France, shoot in the States, then go home to Austria. "He's free."
And for his next cinematic trick? "Several projects. When you have several it is like you have none. We're thinking about a musical, and also a western, or just a pure love story."
A Jacques Audiard musical, I say, in tones suggesting it's about as surprising a concept as a killer whale running for the French presidency. Is he a fan of musicals?
Not especially, it turns out. "That's why I have to do mine," he smiles.
Rust & Bone opens on November 2