This past May, that strange little social-media microverse known as Film Twitter practically exploded in self-righteous anger when Jacques Audiard's Dheepan won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
"Dheepan, a perfectly fine, unremarkable drama, is the most surprising Palme d'Or winner in recent memory, and certainly the least deserving," tweeted Variety critic Justin Chang. Film comment writer Jonathan Romney simply wrote: "What the....!!!!!!" Mildly clever GIFs soon proliferated. The contempt was so fierce that you'd think Audiard had personally walked up to each critic and punched them in the eye, or, perhaps more heinously, rescinded their festival accreditation.
The Cannes jury even had to step in and do damage control, with member Joel Coen scolding the press corps. "This isn't a jury of film critics," the director said after the awards ceremony. "This is a jury of artists who are looking at the work."
While it's true that this year's Cannes lineup was especially strong – most critics were eyeing wins for Carol or Son of Saul – Dheepan is not an incendiary device, and Audiard is no fool. He didn't make a film custom-built for the critical community – he simply did what he always does, which is make a Jacques Audiard film: one that crosses genres, wrestles with complex social issues, and, yes, is more than a bit messy.
Now, four months after its much-derided debut, Dheepan holds its North American premiere Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. As the only Palme d'Or winner in recent memory to carry such a stink, the stakes are obviously high, though, if you ask Audiard, he can't dwell on its Cannes legacy.
"The win was a shock to me, because now, all of a sudden, I was in the club of masters, filmmakers I grew up admiring. But that was not the dream, it was not my goal," the French filmmaker said Friday in an interview with The Globe and Mail. As for his Cannes competitors? "I didn't even know which other movies were there. It didn't really matter."
To be fair, Audiard often doesn't concern himself with what other people think, and he certainly doesn't play into others' sometimes simple expectations. Dheepan, which follows a former Tamil Tiger soldier (amateur actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan) as he and his makeshift migrant family start a new life in a Parisian housing project, could easily torque its way into the headlines as the refugee crisis draws increasing concern. But Audiard didn't set out to make a film about a global plight, and he's not going to change the message now: originally, he just wanted to riff on Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.
"It started as a remake, but it went a bit all over the map," Audiard said. "Straw Dogs was a movie about vigilantes, but at the same time, I don't like that style – it's stupid and reactionary. I wanted to go a bit deeper."
And therein lies the problem. Audiences who only know Dheepan from TIFF's brief log-line might expect a tender and emotional tale of a man struggling to fit into a new society. That element is certainly front and centre, but there is also a last act steeped in bloody violence, a brutal shift that even Peckinpah himself might wince at.
Whatever your reaction to the final 10 minutes, though, the film is undoubtedly a product of a singular vision: an intense and combustible mix of genres that Audiard has always been enamoured with, from his extreme melodrama Rust and Bone to the crime epic A Prophet.
It's unlikely critics will warm up to Dheepan the second time around, but the lifespan of a movie, especially an international production that won't see a theatrical release on these shores until 2016, is a long and complicated one. Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director and one of Dheepan's most prominent defenders after its Cannes win, views Audiard as an essential filmmaker deserving of wide exposure, critics be damned.
"He's a filmmaker of great intensity. I'm not surprised that some viewers felt there was a hurdle at Cannes," Bailey said. "But the filmmaking is terrific, and it also has the potential to have a deep, strong impact in the world. There's a deep discussion to be had here."
Even, perhaps, on Film Twitter.