By all accounts, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) is a curious film. On one hand, it’s a story of immigration, of Sri Lankan refugees seeking escape to the west, told in an almost documentary-style form. On the other, it’s a slow-burning descent into bloody violence that started life as a Peckinpah remake. Its nuanced, carefully measured character study gives way eventually to an explosive climax, and beyond to a deceptively subtle coda. Nevertheless, perhaps in spite, perhaps because of its peculiarity, it won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, beating the hotly-tipped Carol, Sight & Sound poll-topper The Assassin and future Oscar-winner Son of Saul to the prize.
Curious audiences drawn to this emotionally complex, award-winning tale may be tacken aback by its denouement, but the tension in Dheepan between social-realism and a kind of Hollywood classicism is increasingly a hallmark of Audiard’s work. Most recently, Rust And Bone (2012), which starred Marion Cotillard as a killer whale trainer who loses her legs in an accident, “almost felt more like an effects movie than a purportedly intimate drama set on the fringes of society.”1 Audiard also told The Observer recently of his nostalgia for the heyday of the Hollywood Western, when “cinema dealt in pure truth”2.
It’s perhaps not surprising then, given Audiard has never been reluctant to pay tribute to his Hollywood inspirations (The Beat That My Heart Skipped was a remake of James Toback’s Fingers (1978); A Prophet’s lead, Malik, was reportedly inspired by The Godfather’s Michael Corleone) that he should consider producing a remake of Straw Dogs (Dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1971). “Initially,” Audiard has explained, “we had the idea of using genre as a Trojan horse… But using genre gave us a ‘vigilante’ film, a rather stupid and reactionary genre.”3 From Straw Dogs, Audiard, with his writing collaborators Noé Debré and Thomas Bidegain, took “the idea of an outsider, somebody who comes from another place”4 and began to glean that the film they wanted to make “was a love story, that this man would do anything for his family out of love.”5
Audiard’s work has long concerned itself with the struggle of inchoate voices to find form (2001’s Read My Lips), the struggle for self-actualisation (1996’s A Self Made Hero), and the struggle to create one’s self, to forge one’s own destiny (2009’s A Prophet). The director’s intention, however, is not simply to give voice to the voiceless or a platform to underrepresented minorities, but to discover and engage with “people that are totally different from me, my social milieu, and my culture.”6 This impetus, away from French culture, domestic and colonial, drove Audiard in this case inevitably towards Sri Lanka and the civil war, “that I had totally ignored, and that was not at all represented or covered by the French press.”7
Essaying the conflict itself, though, is less important to Audiard than showing how that past tells upon his characters as they attempt to start new lives, under assumed identities, in a Parisian housing estate. The director looked to the Tamil community in Paris to cast his film, and there found his Dheepan in writer and ex-Tamil Tiger Antonythasan Jesuthasan. Jesuthasan, who has lived in France for 23 years, reportedly auditioned for a minor part, but was promoted to lead when Audiard discovered how closely his life story matched the script. Radicalised by the events of Sri Lanka’s Black July in 1983, a 17-year-old Jesuthasan joined the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fighting with them for seven years until his group was all but wiped out. With fake documents, he eventually made it to France, where he worked a series of odd jobs and embarked on a new career as a writer of Tamil fiction.8
Audiard, however, is keen to point out the similarities are merely serindipitous and Dheepan is not Jesuthasan, as should really be clear by the film’s conclusion. That’s because Dheepan switches into a new gear close to the end, dispensing with what has been an almost documentary style in favour of kinetic action – gunfire, explosions and “macho heroics à la Sylvester Stallone”9. Some have attributed its “abrupt” narrative turns to an unfinished edit, assembled for Cannes and fixed forever once it won the Palme d’Or10. Indeed, the elision that swoops a bloody Dheepan from the ninth floor of an embattled apartment block to behind the wheel of a London taxi is clearly jarring.
However, whether a visual pun is intended or not, the image certainly recalls another film in which a psychologically troubled outsider descends into vigilantism towards certain death, only to find himself miraculously granted something approaching a fairy tale ending.11 Roger Ebert wrote of the much debated final scenes of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) that, “the end sequence plays like music, not drama: It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level.”12 If that comparison is instructive at all, it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not it contradicts or complements Audiard’s own view of his dramatic conceit: “the history of love constructed in front of our eyes. In the beginning it is a lie, a fiction, but we go from a lie they pretend to something that becomes real.”13
Sean Welsh, April 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. David Jenkins, ‘Dheepan – first look review’ Little White Lies
2. Jacques Audiard, interviewed by Jonathan Romney, The Observer, Sunday 3rd April, 2016
3. Jacques Audiard, interviewed by Fabien Lemercier
4. Jacques Audiard, interviewed by Katie Kilkenny, LA Review of Books, 10/12/15
5. Jacques Audiard, interviewed by Kenneth Turan
6. Jacques Audiard, Kilkenny, ibid.
7. Jacques Audiard, Kilkenny, ibid.
8. ‘Dheepan’s Antonythasan Jesuthasan: from Tamil Tiger to star of a Palme d’Or winner’ in The Guardian, Thursday 31st March, 2016
9. Ginette Vincendeau, Dheepan review, Sight & Sound, May 2016, Volume 26 Issue 5, p61
11. In their recent interview with Antonythasan Jesuthasan, The Guardian curiously notes the ‘Taxi Driver-like poster in the foyer’.
12. Roger Ebert, Taxi Driver review, 2004
13. Jacques Audiard, Turan, ibid.