(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week, our “The Curbside Criterion” continues where HtN staff can trot out thoughts on the finest films ever made. Today HtN Lead Critic Chris Reed spends time with Dheepan, French director Jacques Audiard’s 2015 Palme d’Or Award winner.)
Dheepan is a man out of place and out of time, adrift in a world not his own. Like a gunfighter in a classic Hollywood Western – Shane comes to mind, most obviously – he does his best to fit in to his new and alien surroundings, but there’s always the looming threat of his past catching up to him. Will he succumb to the weight of history, or rise above it? This is the central dramatic question of the new film from French director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), whose films often combine violent gangster-genre elements with serious meditations on identity and otherness. His heroes frequently live on the margins of society, yet fight to find a way towards the center. In Dheepan, his protagonist is not just other, but alien, a Sri Lankan refugee in Paris escaping the civil war back home.
Dheepan, it turns out, is not even his real name. As the film begins, we see our hero in a group of men – Tamil Tigers – burning corpses; whether of their comrades or victims, we do not know. We find him next in a refugee camp, having left the Tigers, where he joins forces with a woman he doesn’t know, who has just recruited an orphan girl from within the camp, to form a fake family, adopting names on the passports of dead fellow Sri Lankans. Families make for less threatening immigrants than single people. From now on, he will be Dheepan. Their destination? France. Once arrived, they find themselves in a housing project outside Paris, where Dheepan, barely able to speak the language, is the new superintendent. They strive for normalcy, but it’s more than hard, especially since Yalini – Dheepan’s “wife” – has family in England, where she’d rather go. Further complicating matters is the fact that the local drug gangs rule the roost. Will Dheepan, a man with a past as violent as his, be able to keep his head down? Maybe, maybe not.
Dheepan won the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and it certainly packs a powerful punch. It’s not without its flaws, however. As with most other Audiard films, it’s the plot that gets in the way, rather than the metaphysics; a little too much contrivance towards the end mars the perfection of the middle section. The violence of the film may also be too much for some, mistaking arthouse pedigree for purely intellectual adventures; Audiard, however, always goes for the literal jugular. Still, whatever its ultimate shortcomings, Dheepan offers a visceral ride in which real-world problems join with cinematic conventions to form a powerful tale of survival. In French and Tamil with English subtitles.
Criterion now offers the film in a solid Blu-ray package, featuring a beautiful high-definition transfer, with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD soundtrack. Each of the disc’s video extras adds to our understanding of the film and the process of making it. What follows is a brief review of each feature, including the booklet essay.
“Things Fall Apart,” Essay by Author and Film Scholar Michael Atkinson (Author of Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood): In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal that I taught with Atkinson, years ago, at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University. He’s a good guy, and has written a solid essay that combines terrific analysis, a good summary of recent Sri Lankan and European history, as well as production facts. If I have one criticism, it’s the way in which he keeps referring to the “brownness” of the lead actors’ skin. He means well, and combines this with praise for Audiard’s decision to take on the point of view of an outsider within French culture, but the repetition of the remarks leads us a little too much towards a Western-centered ethnographic approach that is not, I believe, what he is going for. Beyond that, he offers great insight into the problems facing Europe with its ever-ongoing refugee crisis.
There are five special features:
- Commentary with Director Jacques Audiard and Co-Screenwriter Noé Debré, Moderated by French Film Critic Fabrice Leclerc: This is a wonderful conversation, although I would have preferred to hear only Audiard and Debré, without the moderator. We learn quite a lot, from their thoughts on the opening credits, to casting, to how they shot the film like a documentary rather than a narrative, and so much more. Audiard tells us that he regrets calling the film simply “Dheepan,” since that negates, in his mind, the female experience within the story, which is equally important to him. It turns out that with the 2015 Cannes Film Festival approaching, they had to come up with a title, and once it became known under that title, it had to stay. There is a lot of other great information within, and I recommend to anyone who has already watched the film to watch it again with this commentary playing.
- “Strange Aliens,” Interview with Audiard (produced by Criterion in February, 2017) (21:14): Though there is a lot of repetition here of what we already heard Audiard say in the commentary, he also discusses, at length, his cinematic influences both for this film and in general. We learn about his early beginnings in the film industry (which Atkinson discusses, as well), and hear him say, again (as he did in the commentary), that he and Debré strove to “under-write” Dheepan, in contrast to how he “over-wrote” Rust and Bone. To find out what he means by that, you can watch the interview! Audiard also sings the praises of his young cinematographer, Éponine Momenceau, who turned 30 on set. He chose her in part because he wanted a crew as inexperienced as his actors, so that everyone would be learning together. I love that.
- Interview with Antonythasan Jesuthasan (Produced by Criterion in February, 2017) (21:52): Jesuthasan plays the titular Dheepan, and is himself a former Tamil Tiger. He is mostly a writer, living in exile in France, though he had acted in one film prior to this. It’s fascinating to hear him describe his own journey, which mirrors that of the character he plays. This is definitely a solid addition to the package.
- Deleted Scenes (9:03): Available with commentary or without (same team of three as in the main feature’s commentary track). It’s interesting to see what was left on the cutting room floor, and hear why those editing decisions were made.
- Trailer (2:02): This is a great trailer, especially in the way it places the subtitles in unexpected places.
Good stuff, as we mostly get from Criterion. A definite must-buy for fans of the film.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)