CANNES, France (AP) — For much of its running time, Jacques Audiard's new film, "Dheepan," is a gritty and naturalistic depiction of Tamil refugees trying to build a new life in France.
That's a long way from where the project began, as a remake of Sam Peckinpah's violent revenge thriller, "Straw Dogs."
"That was the origin of the origin," Audiard said. "At the beginning, it was a kind of vigilante movie."
The French director has long mixed genre-movie conventions and tough real-world subjects into powerful and distinctive films. His international breakthrough, "A Prophet," reinvented the prison drama, while follow-up "Rust and Bone" was inspired by B-movie melodramas.
"For me, genre is a Trojan Horse," Audiard said — a way of smuggling surprises past the audience's defenses.
"Dheepan" is part social-issues drama, as it follows former Tamil Tiger fighter Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), 20-something woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and 9-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), refugees from the war in Sri Lanka.
The three pose as a family in order to come to France, where Dheepan gets a job as caretaker at a high-rise housing project on the outskirts of Paris.
Audiard shows the trio's first steps toward a new life, before the violence they thought they had left behind erupts in a bloody climax. But "Dheepan" also has the bruised-and-battered tenderness that marked Audiard's earlier films.
"What is really at the heart is the love story," the director said during an interview Saturday. "How are we going to get from a fake family to a real family? How can we get from antagonism to love?"
"Dheepan" is one of a handful of films considered strong contenders for the top trophy at Cannes, where "A Prophet" won the second-place prize in 2009.
"A Prophet" focused on a young Arab inmate (Tahar Rahim), while "Rust and Bone" was set on the impoverished fringes of the monied French Riviera. "Dheepan" once again puts people from the margins of European society at the center of the action.
"'A Prophet' is maybe the point at which I began to feel uncomfortable with the French casting system," said the dapper, trilby-wearing director, sitting nine stories above Cannes' bustling waterfront boulevard, the Croisette. "I felt like I needed to direct other faces, other skin colors, other ways of speaking and thinking, other forms of expression from what we are used to seeing."
This year's Cannes festival features several films by directors working in second languages, including the English-language debuts of Italy's Paolo Sorrentino ("Youth"), Greece's Yorgos Lanthimos ("The Lobster") and Mexico's Michel Franco ("Chronic").
Audiard has resisted making an English-speaking movie, but that may be about to change. He is working on an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt's Booker Prize-nominated novel "The Sisters Brothers," set during the 1849 San Francisco gold rush.
"In this case I made a French film shot entirely in Tamil," Audiard said. "Maybe next time I'll make a Western, in Europe, speaking English."
Or perhaps Audiard's urge to portray reality in all its diversity will take him in another direction.
"During the 1849 Gold Rush, not everyone spoke English, or spoke English with the same accent," he said. "They were first-generation immigrants. They spoke French, all kinds of languages. It was a real Tower of Babel."
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