Every now and then, a movie comes along that transcends standard categorizations. We share the identities of the characters onscreen. We’re reminded of people we know in our own lives. Their story bears a close resemblance to that of our families’. We respond to the experience on personal terms. Jacques Audiard’s ‘Dheepan’ is an example of such a film for me.
The opening image is that of a burning Sri Lankan village in the bloody aftermath of civil war. The film then cuts to a crowded refugee camp with people trying to flee in a panic. In order to secure political asylum, a man, a woman, and an orphan child pose as a family using three passports found on dead bodies. Assuming the identities of these casualties, Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and young Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) get on a boat bound for Paris (though Yalini would prefer to go to England, where she has relatives). Essentially, they have borrowed a life from the dead. These three complete strangers are now father, mother, and child in the eyes of everyone else.
Dheepan, a former Tamil soldier haunted by the war and the death of his real wife and child, finds work and accommodation as a caretaker in a rundown housing project in a northeastern suburb of Paris. He keeps his head down and works hard cleaning up after the drug dealers who occupy one of the buildings. Yalini finds good-paying work taking care of the disabled uncle of the local ganglord Brahim (Vincent Rottiers). Though she isn’t Muslim, she wears a hijab to blend in with the other immigrants. Illyaal enrolls in what appears to be a good public school. She does amazingly well, all things considered. These three are more like roommates than a family but they make strides in finding a new life.
Though the film’s title is ‘Dheepan’, the focus is on all three central characters and there are many lovely scenes involving these three. They rarely talk as a family – conversations seem to take place in twos about how they need to commit to their prescribed roles, treat each other better, communicate more, and about not getting French humor.
Given the horrors Dheepan has suffered and inflicted on others, he is looking for peace and quiet and a chance to leave his former life behind – he makes the greatest effort to assimilate. Yalini is slower to adjust; she struggles to pick up a new language and feels no responsibility for Illayaal or anything else (perhaps because she never had a family of her own). Illayaal doesn’t feel much for her fictional mother.
All three of the central performers are newcomers, and the acting here is outstanding. Antonythasan, a terrific actor, appears to be acting out of his own life story. In his teens, he joined the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a terrorist organization that fought for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. He left the group at 19, fleeing for Hong Kong, then Thailand, before finally ending up in France. We don’t get flashback sequences to Dheepan’s past – everything we need to know can be found in Antonythasan’s expressive face. Srinivasan is a captivating screen presence – she can do comedy, warmth, fear, and distress. They, along with the very fine Vinasithamby allow us to see what they see and feel what they feel.
Dheepan’ arrives in theaters here in Toronto almost a year after its Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival. It hasn’t lost any of its timeliness. The argument can be made that it is even more relevant now. With the threat of terror and civil war, huge numbers have fled the Middle East and Africa and as a result, Europe is experiencing one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its history. This is a movie that is committed to understanding displacement.
Audiard tackles the immigrant experience head-on. The characters may have fled danger in Sri Lanka. But, the threat of violence only transfigures itself. When they arrive in France, they continue to long for home. Though Audiard’s films have a gritty quality, he has a great deal of warmth and is sympathetic to the plight of his protagonists.
There is a tonal consistency for about 90 minutes of the film’s 115-minute runtime. Audiard likes changing the movie he has been making into something else. He effortlessly switches genres mid-movie – ‘Dheepan’ jumps from being a war movie to an immigrant drama to an action thriller and ends with a dreamlike epilogue. There are going to be some viewers who find that the picture takes a jarring left turn. Not me. The jaw-dropping violence in the final act serves as a brutal commentary of France’s immigration policies. This is a family who left one warzone only to enter another; the drug war within the complex triggers Dheepan’s hardly suppressed PTSD. In spite of its controversial ending, this is a masterfully plotted motion picture.
I’m Sri Lankan. Both my parents are Tamil. Watching ‘Dheepan’, I found it next to impossible to find the boundary between art and life. I knew I loved the movie when I first caught it at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, but I wasn’t sure if it was because I was too close to the subject matter. So, I revisited ‘Dheepan’ recently (at the Human Rights Film Festival) only to discover that it appreciated in value on second viewing. This movie is for anyone who empathizes with the immigrant experience. That should be all of us. ‘Dheepan’ is one of the best films of 2016. QED.