French director Jacques Audiard has been one of the country’s most acclaimed filmmakers for years, with his gritty, socially conscious movies digging deep into the moral fiber of French identity. This year, Audiard’s distinctive voice will take a new form, as the director makes his English-language debut with “The Sisters Brothers,” the Oregon-set western co-starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly opening on September 21. New Yorkers will also have the opportunity to explore the scope of Audiard’s filmography with a comprehensive mid-career retrospective taking place at the Museum of Modern Art from August 31 through September 20.
In an exclusive interview with IndieWire ahead of the series, Audiard insisted that — unlike many European auteurs — none of his successes in France compelled him to work in English.
While movies such as “A Prophet” and the Palme d’Or-winning “Dheepan” expanded his international profile, “I never particularly felt a need to work in the U.S.,” he said, “but, for a long time, I have wanted to work with American actors and actresses.” The opportunity came along when Reilly approached Audiard with the actor’s wife and producing partner Alison Dickey about adapting “The Sisters Brothers” from Patrick deWitt’s novel. “They gave me the opportunity and I took it,” he said.
However, he stressed that “The Sisters Brothers” wasn’t his sole departure from his native tongue, since “Dheepan” involves a family of Tamil refugees trying to make a living in Paris and much of the dialogue uses their language. “I’m going to have to get used to working with French actresses and actors, to get back to my language,” he said.
Audiard has never been a commercial director in France, but the critical acclaim that has greeted his work has yielded substantial support from the industry. “In France, I am the beneficiary of a lot of freedom,” he said. “My films haven’t been very big successes at the box office, but they have been appreciated and recognized. The producers are happy and proud to have made them, so long as they are not too expensive.”
No matter their box office receipts, Audiard’s movies are big conversation-starters, as they tend to focus on systematic issues of race and class. Both “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and the brutal prison drama “A Prophet” deal young men pressured into criminality despite their other interests.
However, Audiard said he wasn’t “like a documentarian who documents, informs, and incidentally denounces.” Instead, he was drawn to material with strong cinematic potential. With every project, he said, he aims to find “one or two memorable images that will sum up everything.” That instinct has developed with time. “My desires have evolved in tandem with my consciousness about the purpose of cinema and how to make use of it,” Audiard said. “The world moves before us in all its complexity, so one has to find narrative and aesthetic forms to convey this — in a specific way, simplify it and make it teachable.”
“The Sisters Brothers” will be available in limited release starting on Friday, September 21.