Jacques Audiard’s Tamil emigre drama “Dheepan,” winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, thrusts us into the lives of Sri Lankan refugees who are posing as a family in the suburbs of Paris. It’s there that the title character (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), Yalini (Klieaswari Srinivasan) and a nine-year-old orphan (Claudine Vinasithamby) discover that the violence they tried to outrun still hits close to home.
For whatever reason, critical reaction was muted when the film stormed Cannes, despite taking the top prize from the Coen Brothers-led jury. Audiard ricochets (I say deftly) between B-genres, from western to melodrama, which he packs into a parable of globalization that builds to an ultra-violent conclusion. He’s channeling Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” and working with rookie actors including Atonythasan, who emerged late in the game as Audiard explained in our Los Angeles interview, below.
Up for nine Cesars, “Dheepan” opens from Sundance Selects in April.
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You use violence as a way of never letting us forget that what we’re watching is a movie.
There are two moments in cinema that have artifice to them. One is love, the other is violence, and when you film a love scene, the actors are not penetrating; there’s not a true act of lovemaking. There’s a suspension there, on the part of the spectator. The same goes for violence. The actors aren’t being shot. The fist on the face isn’t breaking any bones. In the mind of the spectator there is a suspension and it’s saying, “This is a movie.” Often with my characters that are rooted in a realistic story, the injection of violence or of love are a way to show that these are characters that belong to a film.
I felt that the violence is earned. In what ways were you working to build to this moment throughout the film?
The film is an evolution of genres that change at the rhythm of how the characters themselves are evolving. It starts with a war, and then it goes to more of a documentary, almost realistic look at their adaptation, and then you get the vision of the projects, and then it evolves into a love story. That leads to the last genre, the violence, and there’s an important moment where Dheepan draws the white line between two buildings and it is almost as if to say, “Beware, we are about to cross the line into another genre.” His character who began as a warrior in a war-torn place, in the end, ends up also a warrior again.
Dheepan is played by a former Tamil Tiger soldier; this is not a professional actor. Were you worried, given the material, about being exploitative? How do you approach an actor like that versus someone like Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone”?
The actor came in very late in the process of filming, just before, and was very modest, almost nonverbal, so he never told his story. I never knew about his past; that was never the basis to create or direct the character. Perhaps he himself as an actor used whatever experiences he may have had in his own life but the work that I had with him was not to reproduce that but to create the character of the film. The difference between a seasoned actor is that they have a basis of experience that they can work with and I will lead them to the performance I would like them to arrive to. Together, we work to arrive to a place. With nonprofessional actors, I give them the space to do something, and I follow them. They are exploring. I am following. The dynamics are in two different directions.
The film is ultimately hopeful. When you make a film about Sri Lankan refugees you think: long takes, an ambivalent ending, but this is not so.
I didn’t want an ending that was too realistic. The lead character is imposing his will, and his vision of what they need to do. And the ending, in London, is him entering into her vision of what their future should be. He steps into what she wanted, which is ultimately love in a very simple way. Are they not entitled to that? To end it in a way that was too realistic didn’t interest me. It’s supposed to be London but it’s under an Indian sun, which adds to the texture. It was a type of England that was not realistic.
Why make a film about a fake family?
Perhaps it’s about the theme of having a second life. What is the cost of that? Are we entitled to a second life? The family structure is not a given. We have to construct it.
Where did you discover your cinematographer? This is her first feature.
Éponine Momenceau, the DP, didn’t have any references because she had not shot anything. But since she had finished school, instead of going into film, she was doing art videos. I appreciated the films she made in the context of an art piece. I was not dealing with a technician but a fellow artist.
Were you disappointed not to rep France in the foreign oscar race?
What a pity! [Laughs] It’s not the end of the world. That’s not why you make films. And “Mustang” is a great film.