Archive for February, 2016

My review of László Nemes’ Son of Saul for Offscreen. My thanks to the editor, Donato Totaro, both for accepting it and for putting it up so quickly.


Read Full Post »

Note: This blog entry contains spoilers.

Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) is one seriously weird movie but not in a good way. It starts out as a realistic drama about Sri Lankan refugees adapting to life in a French housing estate and then gradually morphs into a multiculti retread of Death Wish (1974) with a Tamil Charles Bronson mowing down street trash. I found the latter more compelling than the former (which tends to drag), but Audiard seems reluctant to go all the way with it, keeping one foot in the art house and the other in the grindhouse. Ultimately, one gets the sense he couldn’t make up his mind which kind of film he wanted to make.

The opening scenes in Sri Lanka are promising. The movie begins with an extreme long shot of some men placing branches on a pile, and the relaxed tempo of the action and the sound of leaves blowing in the wind create a contemplative mood. So it’s all the more surprising when the film cuts in to a closer view, revealing that the men are building a funeral pyre with several bodies on it. As it’s never explained who the people were or who killed them, it’s unclear why their deaths inspire a member of the Tamil Tigers (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) to burn his uniform and defect.¹ Furthermore, the narration elides the details of his escape, instead cutting to a refugee camp where a young woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) walks around asking every child she sees if they have any parents. The subsequent revelation that she and the ex-Tiger are planning to go to Europe using the passports of a dead family cues the viewer to infer a sequence of events the narration has omitted.

Once the characters arrive in France, however, our interest turns from their pasts to future events—namely, how they’ll fare in their new lives. Accordingly, the narration becomes much more communicative, showing how the ex-Tiger (who assumes the name Dheepan) secures refugee status for himself and his new family with the help of a sympathetic translator (Nathan Anthonypilai), and their arrival in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, where Dheepan becomes caretaker of a neglected housing estate and the young woman, now called Yalini, finds work cooking and cleaning for a senile invalid (Faouzi Bensaïdi). Only the material involving the various drug gangs operating in the estate is handled obliquely so as to emphasize the impact of gang violence on Dheepan’s family. When representatives of the two factions start shooting it out in one of the buildings, it’s not explained why the situation turns sour, and the camera remains outside with Yalini and her new daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby).

As the characters goals are somewhat vague for much of the movie, the plot tends to proceed in fits and starts, lacking the sure-footedness of Audiard’s Un prophète (2009). At one point, Dheepan visits a deranged former colonel in the Tigers, who beats Dheepan viciously when he tries to tell him the war’s over and then disappears from the film entirely. And while Yalini is evidently attracted to the invalid’s grandson, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers)—a recently paroled gang member who likes her curry—they never get beyond making small talk. In one sequence, a low-level drug dealer explains to Dheepan the advantages of hiring people from outside the community to do his job, leading one to assume Dheepan will start selling drugs to buy a thaali for Yalini. Instead, he literally draws a line through the estate’s courtyard and forbids the gang members to cross it.

It’s at this point that the plot promises to become interesting but Audiard doesn’t follow through. Instead of developing the conflict between Dheepan and the gangsters as an escalating back and forth exchange, à la Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), here Brahim threatens to kill him if he doesn’t back down and Dheepan responds by producing a machete and going on a rampage. (Earlier, he appeared to be forming a vigilante army with his caretaker buddies, but contra Hawks, when the time comes for action, he inexplicably decides to go it alone.) What’s more, Audiard perversely underplays what should be the film’s dramatic highpoint by shooting it in a sub-Bressonian fashion, keeping the camera on Dheepan’s feet as he slashes his way up the stairs of the apartment building where Brahim lives with his grandfather, and by having Brahim (who’s already been shot by a professional rival) bleed to death off camera before Dheepan arrives, thereby depriving us of a final showdown. The movie gives a whole new meaning to the idea of “vulgar auteurism.”

1. In a review for the Guardian, Andrew Pulver proposed an alternative explanation: The war is already over when the story opens and the men are burning the bodies of their dead comrades. Accordingly, Dheepan isn’t a deserter but a defeated soldier trying to pass for a civilian refugee. Regardless of which explanation is correct (and admittedly, I find this account more persuasive than my own), the very fact of different viewers making disparate inferences about the story is indicative of just how uncommunicative the narration is in this part of the movie.

Read Full Post »