DHEEPAN directed by Jacques Audiard, written by Noé Debré, Thomas Bidegain and Audiard, with Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby. A Mongrel Media release. Subtitled. 114 minutes. Opens Friday (May 13). See listing.
The Tamil refugee experience has never been so accurately and powerfully relayed onscreen as in Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (pronounced “thee-bun”). The Palme d’Or winner follows a former Tamil Tiger who seeks refuge in France with a woman and child who pose as his family.
The thing is, Audiard didn’t initially set out to make a movie about Tamils.
“I knew zip about the Tamil community,” says the French director, explaining through a translator that he initially embarked on the project as a Straw Dogs remake immediately after his tour-de-force Arab-meets-Corsican crime drama A Prophet.
Audiard wasn’t satisfied with the vigilante movie that was taking shape, so he introduced the idea of a fake family clinging to one another for survival in a foreign land. To intensify their displacement, he needed to find a background for his immigrant characters that was completely disconnected from French culture.
He uses his fingers to draw a globe and then begins searching for a location, past former French colonies in Africa and Asia, finally zeroing in on the island nation of Sri Lanka. That, according to Audiard, is how Dheepan came to be.
He’s in a Toronto hotel moments before Dheepan’s TIFF premiere, complementing his three-piece suit with track shoes and his trademark porkpie hat. He’s jovial and jumpy, coming off a Cannes win that has been both celebrated and derided. Many critics are put off by the film’s last-act implosion, where the title character, suffering from PTSD, has a cathartic Taxi Driver moment with neighbourhood criminals.
A pendulum swing from social realism to genre cinema has always been part of Audiard’s films. Remember when the lead in A Prophet started smiling under a hail of slow-motion bullets?
“That’s when my characters realize that they’ve become movie heroes,” says Audiard, who has built his career on giving marginalized people a shot at a populist narrative.
Audiard has a champion in TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, who floated another theory about the critical backlash. “Dheepan hit me hardest at #Cannes,” Bailey tweeted immediately after it won the Palme d’Or, “but it left others cold. Partly a question of how and where we identify at the movies.”
In a conversation I had with Bailey weeks later, we wondered whether the foie gras crowd at Cannes had trouble forging an intimate connection with the nuances in Dheepan’s refugee story.
“It’s possible,” says Audiard, when I take up the question with him.
He is a standout among European filmmakers in his efforts to diversify that region’s cinema, striving to represent its multicultural population more accurately in his films. So it doesn’t surprise him that some of the folks at Cannes would chafe at a French film with dialogue mostly in Tamil, or that they would simply have a difficult time relating to a film about refugees.
“They’re assholes,” Audiard remarks, before alluding to how many more refugees they’re going to be coming across. “The future is going to be difficult for them.”
Don’t miss our Dheepan review and last week’s cover story, I Am Tamil.
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