Almost exactly a year after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan is finally getting its North American theatrical release, albeit somewhat limited. The story of a Tamil Tiger soldier fleeing to France and trying to live life as a caretaker in low rent tenement housing is deeply affecting and extremely relevant. Posing as a family with a woman and child he doesn’t know, Dheepan finds the housing project is not without its own wars.
Following other festival hits A Prophet and Rust and Bone, Audiard once again crafts a unique immigration story that is insightful and intense. We shared some of our own insights with the director when he was in town for TIFF last September, read on to see if he agreed with our interpretations of this genre bending drama.
Dork Shelf: What’s perhaps most effective is its beautiful tonal shift. It starts as a quiet family drama and becomes something quite big and quite monstrous. Can you talk about the challenge of making that balance work?
Jaques Audiard: At the beginning, it started as an action movie, but the way it evolved I liked the balance. It was not very difficult to switch from the family story and the action part.
DS: I guess I’m assuming there’s a fine line that has to be maintained.
JA: My previous film was very specific and formally written. Rust and Bone was “tres scenarise”, very script. With Dheepan I wanted the opportunity to have an open script giving lots of possibility, lots of opportunity. I didn’t want to be stuck in the script.
DS: You worked very closely with these performers to craft, not only through rehearsal, but the through the script stage, managing to craft a very specific story. Yet there was still improvisation throughout?
JA: Yes, there was improvisation. So, to revisit your initial question, I had in mind an action film with special effects that would be improvised. I said to myself, this is an idiosyncratic aesthetic curiosity, let’s see if it works.
DS: For me, that’s what elevates it.
JA: Is that what you saw?
DS: Yeah, that’s what I saw was unique in the film, colliding the specificity and choreography of an action film with the looseness and authenticity of a family drama.
JA: Thanks, that’s great. I always find it interesting, or marvellous, to be understood like that. One can never be sure! [Laughs]
DS: For me, this film has a lightness, a frisson to it, because of the improvisation colliding with the more rigid drama.
JA: It’s odd because we always say one film chases the other. Actually, each movie gives you the desire to make another one. My goal for the next is to push this even more, to go further in this direction, for sure. It’s foolish, I’m speaking like a child, but I can do it. It will go in that direction!
DS: No, it is how an artist progresses. But begs a very important question, it means once you are done, you now know how to do what you have done. So in some ways, if you started Dheepan now, it would be a very different movie. How would it be different?
JA: I personally cannot perceive the level of success of Dheepan, even on strictly an aesthetic level. What interested me, why I took on Dheepan, was the challenge of mixing the low and the high. I next have a project that will be a Western and I think that will likely be a similar mode of thought.
DS: That being said, in many ways, Dheepan is structured as a Western.
JA: [Laughs] This is a crazy conversation! You say it’s a Western? Well, it’s kind of a classic Western. I realized only last week where one aspect of the film came from, and that’s A History of Violence by David Cronenberg, which itself is that kind of Western film.
DS: Here’s my point: at its best, a Western is an archetype that is also specific. And for me, I get excited when I have a collision between the art the visceral, the kinetic. For me, this is what elevates Dheepan, much like a Cohen brothers film or like a Cronenberg film.
JA: How well do you remember History of Violence? Theres a scene where the hero is with his son on the lawn and the bad guys come. The father and son are killing everybody, and afterwards, the sheriff comes and it’s unbelievable, he says “Joe, is there a problem?” That’s all that he says. And then Viggo Mortenssen’s character, he makes love on the staircase. An incredible scene!
That scene, it’s almost a model for what I do. It’s a moment where the director challenges the viewer and asks, “Do you believe me?” If you believe me here, just follow me please along this journey.
DS: So once the director has you in the palm of his hand they will take you wherever you wish to go, no matter the tonal or narrative shifts.
JA: Voila. Yes, and beyond that limit, if you accept this, you will accept the rest.
In Dheepan, when we draw the line, it’s the same principle. [At the end] it’s like as if I turned to the audience and said if you accept this idea that this guy, he changes. When Dheepan was drawing the line on the grass, it’s like the question, the question to the viewer – If you accept to cross the line, you come to another [protagonist].
DS: So once he sets the line we as an audience jump over, and we’re essentially willingly jumping into another film with another set of rules.
JA: Yes, exactly!
DS: Did you set out to make the ending ambivalent? I’m not looking for a specific interpretation, but generally do you think that the final scene constitutes a “happy ending”?
JA: The audience will decide. Yet for me, it was very simple, I wanted first an ending of simple happiness, a very simple thing, and that this man, who dominated during most of the movie, he decides to follow the desire of his wife. He’s accepting the desire of his wife.
DS: So by your terminology it’s the moment the film becomes “feminine”.
JA: Exactly. And, ironically, the garden, the BBQ party, all of that, I shot it in India. The sun is an Indian sun.
DS: We should get some words on working with this cast, finding the cast and working with this remarkable, and the contributions that people like Anthony made to the richness of this story.
JA: There were different needs: Claudine, the woman, the kids, had different needs. Kalie belongs to a theatre company in Madras, in Chennai, she’s a pro on stage. It’s something quite different. The little girl, she’s just a little French Tamil girl, very well educated, very smart and cute, a non professional actor. With Anthony, he’s a writer, a pure writer, so therefore, the demands weren’t at all the same.
When you work with non-professional actors, the non-professional will always think that you have chosen him because of his physique, who he is, his being. He doesn’t understand at the beginning stage that he is not the character and he will have to move towards the character. So the work is mostly to go from what is Choban to what is the character Dheepan.
DS: But his job, surely, was also to give your film an authenticity it would not otherwise have. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
JA: Yes, sure. But I think that at the end, what Choban does for Dheepan is not Choban, that’s Dheepan. It was a lot of work for him.