French auteur Jacques Audiard follows a string a of critically acclaimed successes (A Prophet, Rust And Bone) with Dheepan, a melodrama planted firmly in reality, until it isn’t. Dabbling in magical melodrama, the film—which won the coveted Palme D’Or at 2015 Cannes Film Festival—tells the story of a Sri Lankan Tamil fighter who absconds to France out of necessity. Soon, the eponymous character becomes a day-to-day caretaker outside Paris. The battles waged in the film remain familial and personal until unwanted violence arrives at Dheepan’s front door.
The A.V. Club spoke to Audiard at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where he discussed the political underpinnings of Dheepan, the endless battle of digital versus film, and the struggle to communicate with human beings.
The A.V. Club: In your career, which spans a little more than two decades, do you feel there’s been growth?
Jacques Audiard: First, it’s a bit bizarre, because when I made my first movie, it was not my vocation. I was in a company with two other friends, and we had to do everything. So we asked, “Do any of you have a project?” I had a project. I wrote a book. And then I was like, “I can make this movie.”
AVC: It wasn’t a vocation then, but how about now?
JA: For a while, I made movies because I love cinema. And then slowly I started to realize that I love to make movies, because it’s the only way I can communicate with the rest of the world. It’s a necessary technique to communicate with the world. In real life, I’m silent—misanthropic and suicidal.
AVC: So you prefer communicating through movies rather than in person?
JA: I don’t do it naturally. I’m not good at doing it naturally.
AVC: You’re an introvert.
JA: When I am writing the movie, I’m communicating with one person, the co-writer. Then during the shooting, I have plenty of different trades, so that’s a form of communication. And then when the movie is finished, when it goes out to the world, that’s another form of communication, with the people watching it.
AVC: You said it doesn’t come naturally. Do you not like people?
JA: I like people, I just have problems with communicating with people.
AVC: Your father and uncle were both in the movies. You initially refused to join the “family business,” right?
JA: Not for too long. My dad was very famous in France, as a writer, but it’s very local. But the relationship my dad had with the movie industry was very instrumental; he was very talented, he was very good at it, he could make money at it. For him it was a real job. If you had said to my father that cinema was art, he would have…
AVC: He saw it as a business.
JA: What he loved the most was literature. He loved to write. He would read what Faulkner wrote about Hollywood. And Faulkner was spiteful. So it was very easy for me to find my own voice in the cinema world, because in my family, the cinema was not well regarded.
AVC: So your father wanted to be a writer. Was there another job you wanted?
JA: If I would have continued the same way, I would have gone into academia and become a professor. I was studying literature and philosophy.
AVC: Do you despise Hollywood?
JA: No, no. I love movies, I love American movies, and I grew up watching them. I also grew up watching German cinema, French cinema. Hollywood is not the whole thing—there’s a lot more than American movies and Hollywood and vice versa.
AVC: Do you want your films to have an activist bent to them?
JA: You have to know the movie started five years ago, and history caught up with the movie. I’m not going to deny the aim of the movie. The movie is about giving a name to people with no name and no face, so of course, there’s an activist dimension. But I’m really afraid and concerned about the instrumentation of the movie—that people will use it for other purposes.
AVC: As in, audiences see it not as a work of art, but political propaganda?
JA: Yeah, I will be disappointed. [Laughs.] I understand that it’s inevitable. It’s easier to talk about the social aspect of the movie rather than the filmmaking. I already received some messages in France from politicians inviting me to some conference or dinner so they can show the movie. So of course there’s an instrumentation to the movie.
AVC: For most, it’s easier to discuss the political underpinnings of the film than the aesthetic.
JA: To me, it’s interesting why this image appears on the screen and how it appeared. And of course, at the end, all these series of images will touch us in a different way. And of course some people will qualify it and say, “This is political.” Maybe some people are using the term “political” because they don’t have anything else in their lexicon. It’s a strong image, and therefore it’s political.
AVC: So where does the image come from?
JA: At the very beginning. The passage from Sri Lanka to Paris. We see some sparks from far away, and slowly we see Dheepan in Paris. The images—when you see they’re on the boat, when they see the Sri Lankan ghost—you can see light in the background, and slowly, boom, you’re in Paris. And I thought it was too descriptive to just show bombing in the night. What’s left over, though, is the spark in the night. At the same time, the things sparkling in the night gave me the idea of Dheepan in this funny hat and lights, and it’s becoming an iconic image that’s very powerful. It covers the journey, the travel from Sri Lanka to Paris, and at the same time, it’s introducing the character. Dheepan, with his little stuff, he’s glorious, he left Sri Lanka, but at the same time, he’s ridiculous with this bloody thing on his head.
AVC: What images are powerful and moving to you?
JA: My generation has been educated and grew up with very powerful images that the cinema was able to produce at the time. For me, the beginning of Faust by Murnau, some images from Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.
AVC: There are some clear parallels between Wings Of Desire and this film.
JA: There’s a scene in the burning subway, there are voices, all the voices of the passengers, the subconscious voices. I think Wenders had the idea of the movie because of this thing. I can put myself on the street corner and look at people and find new ideas like that.
AVC: Can you talk about the use of digital in Dheepan?
JA: At the end of the movie, there’s a gun fight in the stairs. Fifty percent of the scene was shot. The rest was done on a digital tablet with a great artist, but it’s not cinema. It’s been done by a computer geek.
AVC: Does that frighten you?
JA: I’m not afraid of it, but it’s not cinema. It’s something different, it’s something else. In fact, six years ago, we had in France a festival for photojournalism. Photojournalism means reality. Pictures which are used to inform people. And the curator asked to have the original digital file to make sure it was not fake. You can create whatever you want with that. When Fellini was working, all the tools he used, all the images were real. When he showed a prostitute, it was the real thing. Even the craziest sets were manufactured, designed, and shot—it’s the real thing. Whereas today, you can create images where it’s not the real thing.
AVC: Unlike Fellini, you seem particularly interested in placing your characters in reality.
JA: Yes, when I’m making my movie, it’s like a play. It’s fiction, but at the same time, it’s reality. I want everything. I want the screenwriting and the realities of real life also. For Dheepan, it was a conflict between low tech and high tech. Low tech was the shooting of the housing projects, and the high tech was all the special effects. I want it to be like literature. At the same time, being free in this world, totally free, and be able to improvise at the same time.
AVC: Are you satisfied with your body of work?
JA: [Laughs.] I never see them again. But I’m satisfied about upcoming projects. So, it’s okay.