DHEEPAN (2015) review
written by: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré
produced by: Jacques Audiard and Pascal Caucheteux
directed by: Jacques Audiard
rated: R (for violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity)
runtime: 115 min.
U.S. release date: October 16, 2015 (Chicago International Film Festival), May 13, 2016 (limited) and June 3, 2016 (limited)
There is a certain honesty and straightforwardness present in Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan” that sets it apart from recent films I’ve seen. That’s no surprise to those who’ve seen the writer/director’s last couple of films, the intense crime drama “A Prophet” and the compelling romantic drama “Rust and Bone“, both of which had a memorable realism about them, offering a look at French denizens on the fringe. “Dheepan” also closely follows characters in France who are just left of center, not of their own preference but moreso out of a hope for a better life. In this refugee tale, Audiard carefully unveils who these characters are and how they arrived where they’re at by slowly peeling back the layers that reveal harrowing backstories and vulnerable truths. Deeply moving and thought-provoking, this is a picture that looks at a destructive past, a precarious present and an uncertain future.
Having lost his wife and children in the Sri Lankan Civil War, former Tamil Tiger warrior, Sivadhasan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) flees to France, assuming the name of “Dheepan”, off a dead man’s passport. Along with a faux family he’s pulled together consisting of fellow refugee Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and an abandoned 9-year-old girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), in order to convincingly acquire political asylum, hoping to escape the tragedy and violence of his homeland. He finds work as a caretaker of Le Pré-Saint-Gervais housing projects just northeast of Paris that happen to be populated with territorial gangs. Determined to keep a low profile, Dheepan sends Illayaal to school and finds Yalini a job cooking and cleaning for Mr. Habib (Faouzi Bensaïdi) an elderly invalid in one of the buildings, where she is frequented by the intense Brahim (Vincent Rotters), one of the resident gang leaders.
Assimilation is a challenge for the trio, with young Illayaal dealing with the cruelty of her peers, Yalini traumatized by gunfire in the yard and Dheepan trying to repress his own combat PTSD. Their situation unifies the three strangers, who gradually go from awkward acting to a convincing supportive unit, to the point of showing genuine affection for each other. But when their violent environment becomes more volatile, Dheepan channel his own warrior instincts to protect hid wife and daughter and their new home.
Audiard excels at character development, relishing time that allows viewers to simply get to know this family of three on their own as they get used to what their new daily life consists of. There are challenges within their home as Yalini is inexperienced in the acts of motherhood, not having any kids of her own back in Sri Lanka and is therefore ill-prepared to deal with the ups and downs of the pre-teen that has been thrust upon her life. AS much as Dheepan tries to maintain peace and a positive outlook among the two women, he is also preoccupied and haunted by the threats and violence from his past and present. The more time we spend with Dheepan and his family, the more we feel for their struggle. Despite the fact that they’re in a better geographical setting, it still comes with its own set of challenges and one can’t help but to think how similar this must be for so many refugees that have been in the news lately.
Audiard and his two co-screenwriters, Noé Debra (“Les Cowboys”) and Thomas Bidegain (who’s collaborated with Audiard since “The Prophet”) mindfully avoid stereotypes here, providing the actors with material that can present the audience with real multi-dimensional characters. And the acting is really solid, populating the film with predominant unknowns that convey the uncertainties and anxieties of assuming new roles and identities. All three have a fantastic dynamic with each other – Jesuthasan and Srinivasan as husband and wife and then each of them share some tender and tumultuous moments with Vinasithamby as their daughter. At times, it feels like Audiard is shooting a documentary, that’s how natural and unassuming the performances are. When violence does erupt in their new home, Audiard’s previous experience shooting intense sequences kicks in and his collaborators such as cinematographer Éponine Momenceau (in his first feature-length film) and longtime editor, Juliette Welfling, offer surreal synchronicity.
The entire world that Audiard creates for “Dheepan” is fascinating as he presents flawed and dangerous characters who are disregarding and labeled or resigned to their instinctive natures. He isn’t aiming for anything uplifting here, but by believing in Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal – despite being unlikable at times – we are also pulled into the drama and wind up caring for them as well. There is a great deal of empathy present as well. Attentive to the struggles of language barriers, conflicting religions and personal grief, Audiard shies away from nothing in embracing the tenuous situation this makeshift family is in.
Some will find the third act a bit too sudden or sensational and while that’s understandable, I had no problem with it. What transpires was simmering under the surface all along and the conclusion is logical and needed for Dheepan’s character.
The highlight of the film is Anthonythasan Jesuthasan’s complex performance, which becomes even more impressive in retrospect once I discovered that as a teenager he joined the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a “helper” after the Black July Anti-Tamil riots. Obviously he’s drawing somewhat from real life here, offering a sobering semi-autobiographical knowledge to his role. The more I read about his past the more I realized his own story could be a movie in and of itself.
“Dheepan” withholds little, delivering a revealing look at people so many often overlook. It is a timely film, one that unfortunately has been timely for decades. It won the the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and has been making its rounds on the festival circuit sense, generating quite the buzz. The story may not have easy situations or provide clear answers, but it does indeed shine an understanding light on characters that will be hard to forget.