By Elias Savada.
French director-writer Jacques Audiard, a multiple Cannes Film Festival prize nominee and winner, and constant trophy collector at the César (French Oscar) ceremonies, should find a welcoming audience here in America with Dheepan. Here’s a brave, bittersweet tale about three unrelated Sri Lankan refugees cast adrift in France, where they are forced to bond in a traumatic tale of survival. The millions of hard-working immigrants (illegal or not), and anyone sympathetic to their struggle (maybe even a Republican or two), should find this story of assimilation and trust a well-acted celebration of life in a new land.
Winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes (but shut out of the Césars despite nine nominations), this gritty human masquerade starts with a theme common to Audiard, violence in the margins of life, off the mainstream pages and part of the chaos of a mad new world. Previously he explored urban anxieties in 2009’s A Prophet (about a young, imprisoned Franco-Arab man caught between Corsican and Muslim factions), as well as examining lowlife criminal elements in Read My Lips (2001) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). After breaking away from the gangster underbelly with 2012’s romantic drama Rust and Bone, Audiard returns to the dark side with Dheepan, a lesser but still very much accomplished work.
The film begins with rushed examination of the civil turmoil in Sri Lanka, a large, tear-drop of an island nation off the south eastern coast of India (for those geographically challenged among you, this country was formerly known as Ceylon). The paths of a disgruntled, shell-shocked Tamil Tiger fighter, despondent over too many funeral pyres, and a young woman, seeking out a child (any orphan girl will do) in a refugee camp, meet to facilitate a scheme to escape from the war. From three of the strife’s dead come passports for use by a new-born family: Sivadhasan (Jesuthasan Anthonythasan), rechristened as 35-year-old Dheepan Natarajan; his dozen-years-younger wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and their 9-year-old daughter Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). Strangers one minute, next of kin a moment later.
This newly formed family lands in the suburban Parisian housing project Le Pré-Saint-Gervais (one of the most densely populated areas of Europe, although you can’t tell that from the film, where none but the main characters are viewed). This is where Dheepan becomes the caretaker of several fixer-upper buildings. It’s a hard luck life for these strangers in a strange land, especially as they try to figure out the language and the bureaucracy – although the authorities will eventually become the least of their worries. Trying to sidestep the various gangsters that rule the development further traumatizes Dheepan, with Illayaal providing as much translation as she can understand to a resourceful yet bewildered “father.”
The three leads offer bravura performances: intimate, painful, compelling. Anthonythasan actually spent three years as a teenage soldier with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) before fleeing to France in 1993, gaining political asylum, working odd jobs, and writing (stories, novels, plays, essays, etc.). He’s acted before, but his intensity as a broken man in Dheepan adds a visceral edge to the film. This is the first film for both Srinivasan and Vinasithamby. Their faces are unknown no more.
The script by Noé Debré, Thomas Bidegain, and Audiard follows each family member in a day-in-a-horrible-life experience. For Illayaal, school is a cauldron of fear and racism. Yalini finds work on an upper floor in the thug’s building across the way, cleaning and cooking for a Mr. Habib (Faouzi Bensaidi), an invalid friend of the thugs, including gang leader Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) after he returns home from prison. Dheepan cleans, fixes, absorbs, and learns, but never laughs. His past demons return when a former Tiger commander arrives in town, anxious to recruit the eager-to-assimilate immigrant into a madman’s plot to arm an invisible army back home.
Toss in the day-to-day issues of trying to make a fake family adjust to dealing with any real family’s social and domestic issues. A frightened Yalini is just as afraid of missteps in the family structure as she is of the hoodlums shooting off their guns next door. There is also a growing sexual anxiousness, artfully played out in the shadows captured by the observant camerawork of first-time feature d.p. Eponine Momenceau, presenting the violence within its own fog of war.
As the neighborhood violence escalates, a dazed-and-confused Dheepan takes matters into his own hands. As much effort the three immigrants put into maintaining their sanity and identities, the forces of evil tear at them. And then the gangsters go to town. The climax probably isn’t necessary, and the postscript is much too idealized, much as the concept of world peace might be.
Still, Dheepan offers a powerful journey for three conflicted, lost souls.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.