Dheepan (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Studiocanal) Running Time: 114 minutes approx.
One of the harsher realities one learns in life is that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It may start out that way but circumstances have a horrible habit of changing on a whim or by design of external influences. Jacques Audiard turns a sympathetic yet honest eye to this situation in this Palme d’Or winning film.
Following the Sri Lankan Civil War in which the Tamil Tigers were defeated, soldier Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) decides to leave his refugee camp and head to France for a fresh start. To gain political asylum, Sivadhasan is given the identity of a deceased solider named Dheepan and paired up with Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and 9-year-old orphan Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) to be his wife and daughter.
Shortly after arriving in France, Deephan gets a job as a caretaker at a housing project in the Parisian suburb of Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, while Yalini gets work as a cook and cleaner for the infirmed Mr. Habib (Faouzi Bensaïdi). Habib’s flat doubles as the HQ for his criminal nephew Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) who runs his drug dealing business on the estate, which soon escalates into violence, reawakening Dheepan’s instincts for survival.
A rather timely release with the current crisis of immigrants and refugees being a regular concern and fixture in the news, Dheepan sees Audiard avoid the usual clichés this subject falls foul to, instead going for an understated and slow burning drama designed to widen our understanding of the plight of the immigrant experience in a foreign land.
Typically the story would see Dheepan and his fake family settle into France and enjoy their improved new life when something will jeopardise it, forcing them into a fight against deportation. Audiard is having none of that and shows us that while things are a vast improvement, their new life presents them with a different set of struggles.
Initially it is young Illayaal who is the only one able to speak some French, putting her pretend parents in the role of the dependant when it comes to communication. Over time of course they learn enough of the language to have simple conversations and exchange pleasantries with others, preferring their native tongue when together. As the parents begin to adapt Illayaal starts to suffer at school.
The first notable crack to appear in this makeshift family unit comes via Illayaal taking the idea seriously an asking for Yalini to treat her like a daughter, instead of hitting her and reminding her daily they are not related. Illayaal’s issues may slip quietly into the background as the story gets darker but her presence serves as a barometer for overall growth of the bond of this disparate trio.
Having lost his wife and two daughters in Sri Lanka, Dheepan is the first to take the fake marriage for granted and begins to believe they are a married couple, while Yalani sends mixed signals – rebuffing Dheepan one day, seducing him the next, yet she seems to develop an unhealthy and possibly unrequited interest in Brahim, until the violence begins in earnest.
Audiard’s decision to move Dheepan and co. from one balkanised location to another ostensibly seeks to shatter the notion that Europe is a paradise-in-waiting for people from war torn lands, yet we know he is not be deliberately malicious with this depiction. Instead he is honestly making it known that no matter the scale, senseless fighting and daily taking of lives is a common occurrence anywhere across the globe.
Similarly he is holding a mirror up to the underbelly of suburban Paris where the housing project featured here, run by criminals and home to drug dealings and gang warfare, is based on reality. This then presents us with a very bleak and nihilistic vision of the world but Audiard cannot be blamed for opening our eyes to the truth, but the true power of this films is how is it is free from political or social didacticism.
For the immigrants, their lives and struggles in Paris and how they react to them could be a metaphor for what they endured back home. The scene where Dheepan paints a white line between the two housing blocks and declares a “No Firing Zone” was apparently a genuine act during the Civil War.
It is the final act, in which Dheepan goes all Death Wish and reverts back to his Tamil Tiger ways, that has polarised opinion, being either too jarring tonally to be taken seriously or the perfectly acceptable explosive finale that has been quietly building for the previous 100 minutes. Either way it certainly makes an impact and reminds us of the visceral brutality of Audiard’s celebrated A Prophet.
Aside from a few visual flourishes, and subtle juxtapositions, such as the immigrants huddled together in their small apartment while the outside is vast and inviting, the camerawork and direction are straightforward and respectful to its gritty subject. Even the final act is shot without exaggeration, the violence meted out in short sharp bursts, depicted through a stark, claustrophobic lens.
The quietness of the story is given its edge through the superb lead performances. Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a former child soldier for the Tamil Tigers, claiming 50% of the story is autobiographical. If this role re-opened old wounds for Jesuthasan it doesn’t show at all. For two first timers, Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby don’t just offer sturdy and reliable support as Yalini and Illayaal respectively, but often steal the show.
By throwing his net a bit wider than his native France for this story, Audiard has raised awareness and hopefully opened eyes to a global issue which too often gets diluted and distorted by localised media presentation and discussion. It may paint a damning picture of his own country but Audiard recognises his glass house surroundings and isn’t afraid to admit it.
A film like Dheepan needed to be made and unquestionably needs to be seen.
5.1 DTS HF Master Audio
Audio Commentary with Jaques Audiard and Noé Debré
Deleted Scenes (with optional Audio Commentary)
Conversation Between Jaques Audiard and Noé Debré
Rating – ****
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