Most of the reviews of Dheepan (and some ‘comment pieces’) have been concerned with one or other – or both – of two issues. The first concerns the fact that the film won the Palme d’Or and the second that the narrative suddenly escalates into extreme violence and an unconvincing or even ‘ludicrous’ rending. Since I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the narrative with the film still on release in the UK, it’s difficult to tackle these issues in detail. I’ll tread carefully.
I’m not that bothered by who wins the big prize at Cannes but it is interesting to discuss what possible criteria the jury might use and to think about what impact winning the prize has on subsequent distribution and reception of the winning film. Jacques Audiard has experienced a gradually rising profile as a director since his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall) in 1994. He’s produced just seven features in 21 years – an indication of the care he takes with each one. Before 1994 he was known primarily as a screenwriter. The films are not all the same in terms of their genre elements, although he has been seen as following his father, the screenwriter/director Michel Audiard, in helping to keep alive the French action/crime genre, the polar. I’ve enjoyed all of Audiard’s films but the two most interesting and powerful, for me, have been A Self-Made Hero (1996) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). The first is a postmodern comedy-fantasy which investigates the myth of ‘Resistance’ in France during and immediately after the Second World War. The second is a re-working of James Toback’s US film Fingers from 1978 in which a young thug running a property racket tries to return to being a classical pianist like his dead mother. There are some elements of both these films in Dheepan. But there are also elements of Un prophète (2009), the film that really gave Audiard ‘lift-off’ and I suspect that for some audiences it is that film and the next, Rust and Bone (2012), that first come to mind in thinking about Audiard – and therefore in thinking about his Cannes prize film.
The Palme d’Or seems to me to go every now and again to an American film, including fairly mainstream genre films if the director is seen as ‘special’ in some way (Tarantino, Michael Moore, The Coen Brothers). Mostly it goes to one of a group of international auteurs. French winners are often controversial (e.g. Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013). I suspect that Dheepan for some is not the art film they might be expecting. And part of that expectation might be that it will in some way be a social-realist account of migration from Sri Lanka and how refugees attempt to build new lives in a new country. There are French films that do this in some ways and there is a Cannes precedent with prizes for the Dardenne Brothers and The Silence of Lorna (Belgium-France 2008). But Dheepan is not that kind of film.
Plot Outline (no spoilers)
‘Dheepan’ played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a former ‘Tamil Tiger’ soldier who in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka has to construct a new identity. He finds a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn finds a 9 year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The three strangers become a family for the NGO officials and eventually arrive in France where Dheepan is found a job as a caretaker on a run-down estate in the outer suburbs of Paris. The new arrivals struggle to adapt but Dheepan is resourceful and good at his job and Yalini eventually gets a job outside the home. Tensions within the family group are inevitable. Yalini wants to join her cousin in the UK, but she must wait for a passport. Dheepan has nightmares and dreams of an elephant with mottled skin moving through the forest in Sri Lanka. The estate has strict rules and one block is controlled by a drugs gang. But when a local man returns from custody his presence is disruptive. This signals the build-up to conflict. Will the three Tamils survive the violence which seems inevitable?
Not social realism?
In suggesting that this narrative is not about social realism, I’m suggesting the following ‘absences’ from what might be expected of a social realist drama. There are few, if any, signs of the agents of the French state. The ‘family’ arrives in France and travels to Paris in a swift montage of short scenes after they present themselves in the refugee camp. On the estate they deal only with Youssef who appears to be a community leader of some sort (who may well be employed by the state, but isn’t a designated ‘official’). They speak to someone who assigns Illayaal to a special class for non-French speaking children, but gradually Illayaal’s schooling becomes a less important part of the narrative. I thought at first this was a weakness, but on reflection Dheepan decides very early on that the child is Yalini’s responsibility. This is basically Dheepan’s narrative – like four of the other six of Audiard’s films it is a male narrative, although here it is the single older male rather than the ‘father/son’ structure of the other four. When the violence kicks off there are no police to be seen – they never seem to come out to the estate at all. Add to this Dheepan’s nightmares/dreams about the elephant and the film’s resolution – which may be a fantasy, but which anyway is ‘open-ended’ in its meaning. The only scenes ‘off’ the estate and its environs are set during celebrations for the local Tamil/Hindu diaspora and this features a further part of Dheepan’s story when he meets an exiled leader of the Tamil Tigers.
There are some ‘procedural’ aspects of the drama. We see Dheepan working very effectively as a caretaker. We also see Yalini succeeding at her job. Both of these sequences are important functional plot elements – they help to explain how/why the final events occur. However, I think the most important elements refer to Dheepan and his state of mind. Some reviews criticise the film because it seems ‘unrealistic’ and doesn’t explore the migrant/refugee ‘issue’. Even the highly-respected French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau refers to these two points in her Sight and Sound review. More problematic for me is the Guardian film blog ‘commentary’ by Caspar Salmon entitled ‘Why Dheepan’s take on immigration isn’t helpful‘. Salmon argues that the film doesn’t represent the reality of life on le cité, the Parisian housing estate. But what we see is essentially what Dheepan sees from his perspective as a former Tamil Tiger. He isn’t representative of most refugees in France, he’s a trained fighter and battle-hardened. He acts from within that mindset. Whether the estate itself is depicted in a ‘realistic’ manner I can’t say but there are certain parallels with La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014), both of which stylise the buildings and the community to some extent. I’m willing to accept that there aren’t likely to be as many firearms around on a real estate but that isn’t really relevant here. Audiard has created an exciting drama which pitches an ex-guerilla fighter against local youths. As one of the comments on Salmon’s piece points out, if this was a criterion for artistic success we never accept most gangster or police procedural stories on film and television.
I’d like to watch the film again before trying to evaluate the film’s success but I’m already convinced that it was a brave decision to go with this story. The three leads have relatively little experience. Srinivasan is from a theatre background in Chennai and Jesuthasan was a boy soldier with the Tamil Tigers before moving to France via Thailand and gaining political asylum aged 25. He has worked in a variety of jobs in France, became a political activist and has developed into an accomplished published author (see Press Kit). The leads all speak Tamil – but all slightly differently (Claudine was born in France). Audiard says that he allowed them to improvise on set – something he might not have done with French-speaking actors. He says he came across the small Tamil community in Paris and wanted to make a ‘Tamil action film’. He argues that it was particularly interesting to explore the world of refugees not associated with French colonialism – although France did have a colony actually situated in Tamil Nadu in the shape of Pondicherry/Puducherry. More convincing is Audiard’s decision to look for new characters and new stories outside the traditional polar. (See interviews with Audiard by Jonathan Romney and Danny Leigh.) Audiard’s next challenge appears to be an English language feature. I’m ambivalent about that decision but I’ll continue to watch his films based on the experience so far.
The prolific Johnnie To was ‘discovered’ by the international film festival circuit around 1999 (more than ten years into his career) but it was not until 2005’s Election that his films began to appear regularly at festivals. I’ve seen To quoted as being interested primarily in the Hong Kong market and not wanting to draw on global films for inspiration. However, on the Criterion website he gives his own Top Ten Films which include three by Kurosawa Akira and two by Jean-Pierre Melville – and his films do seem to refer to well-known films from Hollywood, Bollywood, Europe and Japan. Or perhaps he and his co-writers just happen to come up with similar ideas? IMDB carries a ‘Trivia’ item claiming that “Alain Delon is his favourite actor”. In 2007/8 rumours began to circulate that To would direct a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic polar, Le cercle rouge (France 1970), with Alain Delon in a lead role. Delon turned down the opportunity for whatever reason (he was then in his early 70s) but To was still sought by a French production company to direct a France-HK co-production – in English.
The significance of this background is that Delon was a major influence on at least one aspect of John Woo’s ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ films – namely the modelling of Chow Yun-Fat’s characters in films like The Killer (HK 1989) and A Better Tomorrow (HK 1986). Johnnie To is one of the main inheritors of Woo’s position as a creator of Hong Kong crime films and so a potential replacement for Delon was found in the form of the French pop/rock singer and actor Johnny Hallyday. The resulting film Vengeance achieved a cinema release in both France and the US but went straight to DVD in the UK (where To films like Exiled (2006) have had cinema releases). More surprising, perhaps, is that Vengeance was shown in competition at Cannes.
Vengeance features three or four of To’s regular ensemble in lead roles and its setting is in Macau, suggesting to some fans/critics that it is part of a loose trilogy of Macau-set crime films alongside Exiled and The Mission (1999). The plot is simple. Three hit-men arrive at a house and kill a family of four – apart from the wife/mother who survives but is rendered quadriplegic. She is the daughter of a French chef/restaurant-owner and he arrives in Macau bent on revenge. Using a clue he steals from the police investigation, he finds another trio of hit-men and offers them all his wealth to find and kill his daughter’s attackers. The chef turns out to have once been an assassin himself and he still has some ‘professional’ competence but is hampered by loss of short-term memory caused by a bullet lodged in his head. In the ensuing slaughter he needs Polaroids of his own men and his family to avoid mistakes and to remember why he now kills again.
Vengeance received mainly positive reviews but some crime film fans dismissed it and Joe Queenan in the Guardian described it as ‘insane’. Partly, its reception depends on familiarity with the Hong Kong crime film. Certainly the script by To’s production partner and writer Wai Ka Fai relies more on interesting set-ups for action and our familiarity with the bonds of friendship and loyalty among the gang members than on a carefully worked out narrative. To professes not to work with detailed scripts. The set-ups for shoot-outs here are indeed creative – one in a picnic spot at night with moonlight revealing and obscuring the action, another on a waste tip with highly choreographed moves behind bales of waste materials. The familiar actors are Anthony Wong and Suet Lam on the ‘home team’ and Simon Yam as the chief villain – who ordered the original hit. As usual with To, cinematography is the preserve of Cheng Siu Keung and the film looks good, making the most of the locations.
What is odd is to see Johnny Hallyday as the ‘last man standing’ and by the time the dénouement arrives the narrative does seem to have morphed into something more spiritual and philosophical. Apart from the amnesia narrative, the dialogue in English also lends the proceedings an air of strangeness. Hallyday presumably speaks English well enough but some of the other leads are dubbed. I’m not sure about To’s facility with English as a working language (he sometimes has a translator) and shooting some of the scenes in the film must have been slightly surreal. I presume the English dialogue helped sell the film on the international market. It also serves to push the film towards the more ‘personal’ and idiosyncratic end of To’s output.
Julien Duvivier was an established director from the 1920s onwards perhaps best known in the UK for the proto-noir Pépé le Moko (1937) with Jean Gabin, although he ranged successfully across several genres. Like Jean Renoir, Duvivier spent the war years in the US and on his return he struggled to re-establish himself in the climate of mistrust surrounding those who had left France under Vichy and the Occupation. By the late 1950s his kind of cinema was going out of fashion as the New Wave came in. He died in a road accident in 1967. Duvivier’s earlier films from the 1930s had often been highly praised and GFF16 mounted a mini-retrospective of three films.
Panique was scripted by Brussels born Charles Spaak and based on a novel by the great Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon. The same novel was adapted again as Monsieur Hire in 1989 directed by Patrice Leconte. Spaak was a former colleague of Duvivier as was Michel Simon who played the mysterious M. Hire in the 1946 version. The simple story sees a small town (a Parisian suburb?) community in which M. Hire is a man of independent means who roams the town with his camera and fusses over his shopping. He clearly isn’t ‘one of us’ to use Margaret Thatcher’s unpleasant phrase. The disruption which kicks off the narrative is the arrival of an attractive woman, Alice played by Vivian Romance. She has just been released from prison and threatens to be the femme fatale who will provoke both Hire and the man for whom she ‘took the rap’ (and who in the same period in the UK would be called a ‘spiv’ – marked as a criminal type by his dress and demeanour). At the same time, a fair comes to town and the body of an older woman is found when the fair sets up. Murder and robbery are suspected.
The narrative is constructed around an extensive studio set in which M. Hire has a room which overlooks the hotel where Alice is staying. Apart from a brief excursion the whole plot is worked out on the set – a familiar approach from 1930s French cinema. Duvivier uses every possible narrative device to drive M. Hire to his doom. We will find out a little more about his background and why he is the way he is but mainly we are transfixed by how he is set up for the murder and the way in which the townspeople are whipped up into a frenzy about his presumed guilt. In one memorable scene he ‘escapes’ onto a dodgem car in the fairground only to find that every other couple on the rink ‘bumps’ into him deliberately. The use of these devices and the close control over mise en scène creates exactly the kind of social commentary about collective self-deception that must have been very uncomfortable for French audiences when everyone is likely to be identified as being in the résistance or a collaborator. The final scenes are a tour de force with a final tragic revelation. I’m certainly up for more Duvivier films if I can find them. The other two titles in the GFF retrospective were La belle épique (1936) and La fin du jour (1939). Although it was in the smallest auditorium at GFT, this screening was packed – an encouraging sign that a foreign language film can still generate an audience on the big screen.
I enjoyed Glasgow Film Festival last year so much that I was keen to return. This time I had a packed three days with the usual choices governed by the times and venues. First up was Disorder, due out in a few weeks in the UK from Soda Pictures. Unfortunately, it was a slightly disappointing start, offering a ‘bodyguard’ narrative that doesn’t really go anywhere and perhaps wastes the pairing of its stars, Matthias Schoenaerts and Diane Kruger.
The ‘difference’ in this genre film is that Schoenaerts as Vincent is a soldier home from action in Afghanistan and taking on security work as an extra. This is an interesting plot detail. The French contingent in Afghanistan was relatively small and combat troops were withdrawn in 2012. French armed forces have operated recently in other war zones, including Africa, but perhaps ‘Afghanistan’ makes sense for the international film audience. Vincent has been diagnosed with hearing impairment and potential post traumatic shock. The film emphasises this through subjective sound as well as image and it clearly affects his efficiency as a guard. The film also has a pounding techno soundtrack which certainly disturbed me.
Vincent starts as part of a security team on an event and then gets a job protecting the hosts – Jessie (Kruger), the wife of Whalid a Lebanese arms dealer, and the couple’s small son Ali – who live on a large walled estate known as ‘Maryland’ (the film’s original title) in the South of France. With Whalid on a trip, the narrative appears to offer the audience the possibility of a relationship between Schoenaerts and Kruger and with Alice Winocour as director and co-writer I looked forward to something more interesting than what actually transpired. Without spoiling too much of the plot, the arms dealer seems to be part of an illegal operation in France that is in the process of going wrong and a ‘home invasion’ plotline develops in which Vincent might be on his own trying to secure the house with the threat of both criminals and police as enemies. Jessie then has to decide what she wants to do to get out of this situation. Disorder is one of those films where the principals have no backstories, so it seems strange that Winocour is attempting to make some kind of comment about women’s roles in other cultures when she shows Jessie watching the news (in English). Why is this German woman with one friend in the world married to a Lebanese in France? I still don’t know.
In the film’s defence, I was never bored and the tension and sudden outbursts of (brutal) violence are very well handled. I just needed more out of the personal drama. Festival co-director Allison Gardner introduced the film with references to Schoenaerts’ physical appeal and if that’s your thing his magnificent physique is certainly on display (if a little scuffed, bruised and tattooed). Poor Diane Kruger looks a little undernourished by comparison. As several commentators have pointed out, this is a return for Schoenaerts to the hulking but vulnerable muscle man of Bullhead and Rust and Bone. I like Schoenaerts in all his guises and I usually like French genre films – perhaps that’s why I felt disappointed with Disorder. Some critics have suggested French directors can’t compete with slick Hollywood thrillers. This is ridiculous since the crime thriller/polar is a French staple, but Disorder could learn a few tricks from another Diane Kruger film, Pour elle (Away From Her, France 2009).