Europe’s coolest director finally won the world’s most prestigious film-making prize when Jacques Audiard carried off the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year.
His film, Dheepan****, was generally agreed to be good but not as good as his best work, which would include the thriller The Beat My Heart Skipped, the career-making A Prophet and Rust and Bone, a romance starring Marion Cotillard, a killer whale and the now ubiquitous Euro-hunk Matthias Schoenaerts.
However, I think Dheepan, which at last gets its UK release, is as good as anything I’ve seen from anywhere in recent months, probably better. Audiard has been described as the “Scorsese of Europe” , which is ironic, because of all the American directors, Scorsese could be said to be most influenced by European cinema, particularly that of the Italian 60s movies and the French New Wave, both clearly elements that have influenced Audiard.
But what you get with Audiard that’s so often missing in many French directors is a thrill ride. Dheepan is tense and exciting and violent, but it’s also thoughtful and intelligent and political.
Dheepan is the assumed name of a former Tamil soldier (non-professional actor Anthony Jesuthasan) who leaves battle-scarred Sri Lanka on a smuggler’s ship and ends up on the streets of Paris. To get his false passport, he’s had to create a false family, finding a wife, Yalini, and 9-year-old orphan child, Illayaal, in the chaotic refugee camps at the start of the film.
These three lost souls are quickly billeted to a vast, crumbling estate on the edge of Paris, where Dheepan is given a caretaker job. However, the estate is overrun with hoodlums and drug dealers, a lawless place owned and governed by the criminal gangs. As Yalini sort of remarks, it’s just like home.
The constant threat of the estate rumbles while Dheepan and “family” make themselves gradually at home, strangers in a distant yet troublingly familiar land. Yalini finds work caring for Mr Habib, an ageing gang boss with dementia, in whose flat the new generation seem to be plotting their business.
The creeping violence eventually gets to Dheepan when gang warfare breaks out one night and the bullets and fireworks send him into some kind of traumatised recall of his time as a soldier, leading to a climax that, I admit, made me think a bit of Taxi Driver and had my stomach in knots.
Audiard handles all the transitions and traumas with superb skill, giving Yalini and Illayaal just as much importance as Dheepan, so we experience the drama through several pairs of deep, dark eyes. It’s a story that constantly shifts in tone and genre, the better to unsettle and surprise.
The film is about immigration, certainly, and that gives it an edge of social and political relevance, and it feels gritty and real. Yet Audiard isn’t interested in making a documentary. This is a fiction, a movie, with guns and villains and people trying to be heroes in their own way.
Survival is heroism in Jacques Audiard films but what abides are the images: the haunting dream of an elephant in the jungle; Dheepan’s Minnie Mouse bow flickering in the dark as he sells trinkets on the Paris streets; Illayaal’s first day at school; Yalini’s tentative smile.