On a wet London morning, Jacques Audiard smokes a cigarette on the pavement of the Embankment. A real one. Under gloomy skies, the director is a model of Parisian dash, resplendent in a pale grey blazer, a shirt covered with minuscule polka dots and a porkpie hat. His expression is deadpan.
It turns out Audiard, 63, is having a cigarette break after another interview has ended awkwardly: a TV crew who insisted he speak to them in English. He is self-conscious about his English, although it proves better than my French. But as a man whose life is bound up with words, he is keen to express himself accurately. And so a translator sits between us. For now, the hat stays on, too.
Problems with language are central to Audiard’s new film, Dheepan. It takes its title from the name of its hero, a psychically wrecked former Tamil Tiger who flees to Paris at the end of Sri Lanka’s savage civil war. The destination is down to chance, and so is the name: the real Dheepan is dead, his passport appropriated by traffickers. The sense of the random extends to the wife and daughter with whom he arrives in France: two strangers, also refugees, banded into a family of convenience.
“The political act wasn’t liberal sentiment,” Audiard says, via the translator. “It was shooting in Tamil and making this character a hero. In CinemaScope!” Dheepan is not the first time he has put race at the centre of his films: his extraordinary A Prophet (2009) concerned a French-Algerian petty criminal, played by the then-unknown Tahar Rahim. “In most French films, I see people like me. And I’m not that interested in people like me,” Audiard says.
Yet in the rarefied world of European cinema, Audiard’s star shines high and bright. Dheepan won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year; A Prophet claimed the festival’s Grand Prix. The film between, Rust and Bone, starred Marion Cotillard in a ferocious romance popular enough to give its director room for commercial manoeuvre. “A joker to play,” explains the translator. “A tiny one,” Audiard adds in English, his fingers held an inch apart.
Until now, Audiard has made films as stylish as his dapper image, and as tightly structured as you might expect of the scriptwriter he was for years before taking up directing. Dheepan is a little different. For all its grit, this isn’t social realism: first conceived as a riff on Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, it has the tang of a thriller. Yet it’s also loose-limbed, improvised and volatile.
Shooting in the banlieues of Paris, Audiard gathered his cast from among the city’s Tamil community. “Also tiny,” he says. None had any acting experience, including his star Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a poet, activist and former child soldier. “The main thing was they had no connection to France, that they spoke very little French.”
For Audiard, that was a kind of freedom. “With French actors, I’m going to be finicky. Here, I encouraged them to create their own scenes, knowing a lot was going to pass me by. Often, I just gave them their costume.”
At one point, Dheepan’s supposed daughter Illayaal wears a T-shirt with the logo “New World Order”. That of a local ganglord reads “New school”. Audiard nods. “Some things need to be said precisely, and so they came into the film even if they weren’t written.”
A lot wasn’t written. Much of the story — in particular the circling relationship between Dheepan and his wife Yalini — came out of the actors’ improvisations. With Audiard having to translate the results and sculpt them into cinema? “Exactement! And that was wonderful.”
Wariness gone, Audiard has now removed both jacket and hat: a trace of white-grey stubble rings his head. A few questions later, his tie will be undone, and a waistcoat slipped off.
But the central concept of the impromptu family was his, the sense that maybe all families are just learning to play roles. Dheepan’s reinvention intrigued him, too. “The second life fascinates me. Are we allowed one?” Asking where that fascination comes from brings a dancing smile. “You would have to psychoanalyse me to know that.”
Well, if you wanted to be Freudian about it, you might join a few dots. For Audiard, film was a family affair: his father Michel was a prolific scriptwriter, penning more than 100 movies. When Jacques also began writing, the career he built was solid if not stellar. Then, by his own account almost overnight, he realised he wanted to direct as well.
He did so for the first time at the age of 42, with the layered thriller See How They Fall in 1994. Next came A Self Made Hero, another story of borrowed identity, in which a salesman in postwar Paris passed himself off as a champion of the Resistance. It was an international hit. Ever since, everything he has made has enjoyed critical garlands. I start to ask if sometimes he wishes he had moved into directing earlier. He answers, in English, before I’ve finished speaking. “Oh yes! For me, it’s a big pity.” He leaves the rest to the translator. “Life was full, I was in love, and I thought I was meant to be a scriptwriter. So I started directing five years too late.”
Of course, there’s also a live political current to Dheepan and its cast of migrants: even more charged in the year since the film premiered at Cannes. Audiard says he’s simply reflecting Europe as it is. “The refugees are here, so why will they not be our heroes?”
Would he like to change minds among the hostile? “Of course. But maybe the film is not for those people. Maybe it’s for the guys from Southeast Asia who sell roses in Paris, to see themselves.”
Discussing modern France weighs him down. Audiard broods about a future in which the National Front takes power, obliging him to make films elsewhere. “I worry things are going to change a lot in France.” For good or for bad? “Of course, for bad.” He pauses, then addresses the translator. “But I don’t want to talk about this in England. It’s like Victor Hugo, leaving France to complain about France. I’d rather have the conversation there. Let’s talk about something more upbeat.”
Audiard has now undone his cuffs and neatly rolled up his shirtsleeves. For all the pleasures of Dheepan, he has returned to a more conventional approach for his next film: his first in English, an adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s Old West novel The Sisters Brothers, to star John C. Reilly.
“Slowly, I am writing,” he says, with a comic sigh. Does he get a kick out of writing? There is a puffing of the cheeks. “I’m going to be immodest, but if I could find a script better than the one I could write myself, I would shoot it. The problem is, I don’t know if I’m a good director, but I am quite a good writer.”
‘Dheepan’ is released in the UK on April 8 and on May 13 in the US
Photographs: Anna Huix; Paul Arnaud; Sportsphoto/Allstar