Jacques Audiard’s latest caused a stir in 2015 when it won the Palme d’Or, with a number of critics suggesting the award should have gone to a more deserving film, Son Of Saul and The Assassin being the ones championed loudest. Dheepan‘s arrival on these shores has been met with general appreciation, though, even if many amateur and professional critics seem to have found the ending problematic. But that’s the ending, and I probably ought to begin at the beginning. This is Audiard’s eighth film as director, and the first since 2012’s Rust And Bone. It’s the story of a Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger (the Dheepan of the title, played by novelist Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a former child soldier himself) who must flee his country when he ends up on the losing side at the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War. The single Dheepan intends to move to France, but in order to seek political asylum he needs to have a family, so he is paired with a fake wife named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who wants to live with her cousin in England, and a nine-year-old girl named Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who Yalini finds and coerces into making the journey to Europe. This is revealed during a brief prologue, largely set within a refugee camp; afterwards, once the director move the action to the suburbs of Paris, Sri Lanka and the characters’ memories of life there ripple through Audiard’s film. The main character has dreams that feature an elephant partially-covered by leaves and he – and others – involved in the war are clearly haunted by what they have seen.
Dheepan serves as an interesting study of the trials faced by migrant families when moving to a new country. Many French films of recent years have taken on the subject, such as Philippe Lioret’s Welcome and Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, while two of Audiard’s recent works – the magnificent A Prophet and 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped – have also concerned themselves with the experiences of ethnic minority characters within modern France. Both of those films are also about small scale criminal enterprises, so it’s no surprise when we discover that the tower block Dheepan and his new surrogate family move into is directly opposite and adjacent to blocks that are controlled by drug gangs. ‘They have gangs here, too?’ inquires Yalini, surprised. ‘Yes…but not as bad as ours’ is Dheepan’s reply. The dealers actually seem to co-exist with the wary, non-criminal residents amicably enough, even if their constant presence on rooftops and outside entrances is threatening and their nighttime noise is a nuisance, but eventually and inevitably violent incidents begin to break out. Initially Dheepan – who is employed as a caretaker for the blocks – manages to keep a safe distance; gradually, however, he seems drawn to the gang and the trouble that surrounds them like a moth to a flame (sitting nearby when there’s no need to, making idle chit chat with gang members, etc.). The link is furthered when Yalini takes a cooking and cleaning job, working for the uncle of an ex-con gang leader (Vincent Rottiers), who she slowly becomes fascinated by.
There’s actually a very pleasing balance here as Audiard weaves the plot thread about Dheepan, Yalini and the gang together with scenes that deal with the process of immigration and settling, as well as broader and briefer examinations of racism and cultural identity within a minority community (the residents of their estate are presumably first, second and third generation French Muslims for the most part, and there’s an amusing line here in which Dheepan innocently suggests that his new wife should wear a veil to fit in with French people around them, which she dismisses curtly). Some of Dheepan‘s most fascinating passages track the development of the three Sri Lankan characters as they come to terms with the new country and, at the same time, one another; they begin as strangers who barely speak a word of French between them but gradually Audiard presents them as a ‘normal’ family unit, who make acquainances within the local area and the wider Sri Lankan community. The film is at its best as a kitchen sink drama examinign the relationships within the family, and it’s during these scenes that we see the bond between Yalini and Dheepan grow, as well as the development of Dheepan’s paternal instincts. Illayaal’s experiences at school also feature prominently: as the new girl she struggles to make friends and is placed in a special learning class to get her language skills up to speed; yet despite everything she has been through she blossoms at school and later, when we see her doing homework in the lounge with her surrogate father, it looks as if the child is teaching the adult, rather than vice versa.
Then we hit that ending, which is Audiard’s vaguely hallucinatory, grim take on Death Wish, Harry Brown, Taxi Driver or countless genre films that depict brutal acts of vigilantism (I even thought that Dheepan‘s odd coda, set in a middle-class suburban England of bright sunshine and barbecue get-togethers, contains an implied and vaguely-comical nod to Scorsese’s celebrated mid-70s work). To his credit the director spends a while building up to the explosion of violence that takes place during the final act, presumably to try and avoid criticism of drastic tonal shifts, but even so the action that transpires feels extreme given everything that has gone before, though not completely out of character for those involved. (Perhaps it feels unharmonious simply because Dheepan succeeds so well as a drama that investigates the migrant experience.) There are attempts to foreshadow Dheepan’s actions during the final act, principally by suggesting that the PTSD-suffering former soldier shares characteristics with the elephant we occasionally glimpse: generally placid, but also extremely dangerous, and ready to charge. At different times we see Dheepan wearing the flourescent Disney-style mouse ears that he hawked around Montmartre when he first moved to Paris, which could be construed as a subtle visual link to the bigger animal, and it’s at least indicative of Dheepan’s state of mind when he enters France.
In all honesty the ending didn’t ruin the film for me, even though I initially felt it was a misjudgment as I left the cinema. For the most part this is an impressive piece of work, with fine performances from the three Sri Lankan cast members. Eponine Momenceau’s photography mixes wide shots of the banlieues with handheld cameras within its corridors, rooms and stairwells, while she has an impressive, deliberately rough-looking style of framing that I quite like, occasionally using foreground objects and walls to partly obscure the faces of the characters. Nicolas Jaar’s score, meanwhile, is atmospheric, and it changes to complement the shifts in Audiard’s material successfully. Pretty good, even if it doesn’t quite match the heights of the director’s best work.
Directed by: Jacques Audiard.
Written by: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré.
Starring: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Mark Zinga.
Cinematography: Eponine Momenceau.
Editing: Juliette Welfling.
Music: Nicolas Jaar.
Running Time: 112 minutes.