“I often have characters who are on the fringe of society and are about to become outcasts,” Jacques Audiard says via a translator when we meet the French filmmaker in a hotel room in Paris. “The themes of second chances and a second life come alone quite often as well as lies, but it’s not something deliberate. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking that and I don’t have an explanation.”
Indeed, Audiard’s intense and inquisitive body of work is littered with outsiders and unlikely heroes from the petty young criminal who is forced to rise through the ranks in2009’s A Prophet through to Matthias Schoenart’s bullish drifter and Marion Cotillard’s whale trainer who loses her legs in 2012’s Rust And Bone. Now the French filmmaker finds another worthy anti-hero with Dheepan, which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film takes its title from its lead character: a Sri Lankan freedom fighter looking to start over in France. But this absorbing drama is just as much about the journey of the woman and young girl Dheepan impulsively takes with him, and who pose as a family.
“I’m not that happy with the title,” the filmmaker reveals. “It was an accident. I was in the editing room and the movie got shortlisted for Cannes and we were asked, ‘What is the title?’ We didn’t have a title at the time so the producer came up with Dheepan and then it was announced, and we couldn’t go back. The reason I’m not too happy is that it doesn’t account for the other two characters. You know, I wasn’t too sure about this project and I hesitated a lot. Eventually what made me go with it was precisely that it’s three people – this fake family. At the very start of the project, I was actually thinking of remaking Straw Dogs by Sam Peckinpah, but that was only half satisfying because it was just a vigilante movie. I needed something extra and what brought that extra something was the element of the family.”
Just as the title was accidental, so was its topical subject matter, with Audiard – who FilmInk finds to be open and engaging despite having a reputation for being aloof and evasive in interviews – searching for a story featuring “people from very far away.” Adamant that he wanted to make a film with characters “outside French speaking regions”, Audiard’s co-writer discovered Sri Lanka and its devastating thirty-year Civil War. “Maybe people in Australia and UK have known about that Civil War, but in France, we’ve hardly heard about it,” the filmmaker says. “It came as something quite new. At that point, I got very interested, but it was not the initial starting point.”
Playing Dheepan is commanding Sri Lankan Tamil newcomer Jesuthasan Antonythasan (Audiard refers to him as “Antony”), who has been living in France for the past fifteen years as a political refugee and working as a novelist. Delve a little deeper into Antonythasan’s remarkable life story, and one will learn that he was a former Tamil Tiger child soldier. When we ask Audiard how his leading man’s personal experience affected the screenplay, we receive a surprising answer. “Well you know, I found about it late and accidentally as well! I was way into the shooting process when I found about Antony’s past. I think we were setting up for a scene, and Antony said, ‘Well I know about that because that’s my life’. Later on, I read his book, but I didn’t get to use his past to write my script and it did not influence my choices. Whether it helped him or not… that I don’t know.”
The story largely takes place in a crime-ridden housing complex in the suburbs, which Audiard didn’t necessarily see as a realistic depiction. “I’m a middle class person so I don’t have hands on experience of house on project but my main concern was to make a cinematic place. My housing projects are for the cinema. There’s no such thing as housing projects that are one way during daytime and turn into Las Vegas during night, but I wasn’t trying to make a realistic depiction. It’s someone’s point of view, and I wanted to make sense and be consistent but it is within a film.”
One of the striking aspects about Audiard’s films is how deftly they walk the line between realism and style. His worlds and stories may be dark and gritty, but they’re also wonderfully cinematic. “The idea is to have a realistic formal basis, something that is believable, and then you question it and you end up with this instability,” he says of his approach. “We worked on that with the screenwriter. My desire with Dheepan was that as the character develops, you change film genres – you start with the war movie, then you’re onto a social documentary, then a movie set in the suburbs, then a love movie and then a movie about thugs and gangsters. I wanted that to be expressed visually and practically in a very material way.” Audiard references a scene in the film where a desperate Dheepan draws a battle line of sorts on the grounds of the housing complex, which sadly turns into another conflict zone. “The scene when Dheepan draws the ‘no war zone’ line, he’s drawing a line physically but he’s also crossing out one genre and moving onto the next genre. It’s as if we’re saying, ‘You’ve been keeping with us so far? Well bear with us, are you still with us?’”
Speaking of genre-hopping, Audiard is planning to shoot a western next, with the film also set to mark his English-language debut. It’s an adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s acclaimed 2011 novel The Sisters Brothers, which actor John C. Reilly optioned and is set to star in. “It’s a western set during the first gold rush in the 1850s,” the filmmaker tells us. “I’d been working on turning it into a screenplay before shooting Dheepan and hopefully that’s what I’ll be working on next. John offered it to me to direct. I’ll have to find another actor to play the brother.” Who’s on Audiard’s wish list? “Like 95% of movie directors, I wish I could have Joaquin Phoenix. We’ll wait and see…”
Dheepan is screening at The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, playing around the country in March and April, 2016. For more information, visit www.affrenchfilmfestival.org.