It’s a family plot. At the start of Jacques Audiard’s Tamil emigre drama “Dheepan,” our title character (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is thrust together with two strangers, young woman Yalini (Klieaswari Srinivasan) and a nine-year-old orphan she just collected at a Sri Lanka refugee camp (Claudine Vinasithamby) to form a makeshift, instant family unit.
They are impersonating another dead trio, and take their passports in order to fly to Paris, where they are eventually settled as the caretakers of a rough gang-infested housing complex. All three are barely recovering from their battle scars and losses, while needing to survive in a foreign country with a language only the young school girl learns quickly. (“Don’t all countries burn down schools?” the new parents ask each other after a confounding school entrance interview.)
Audiard, a gracefully instinctive director, uses meticulously researched detail (the rookie actors are natural and believable) to throw us into their daily lives as they each learn to adapt and build a family, cooking meals, crafting homemade tool belts and clothing, acquiring computers and phones, despite various setbacks. “Who are they?” Yalini asks of the bustling activity across the courtyard. “Thugs,” says Dheepan. Inevitably, the ex-Tamil Tiger is drawn into a gang conflict that requires channeling his soldier chops. And just as crucially, women are a civilizing influence.
We root for these three to grow together, with no guarantees that they will succeed. Critical reaction at Cannes was respectful, not enthusiastic. I say this movie deserves high praise. The Cannes jury agreed with me, awarding the film the Palme d’Or.
Sundance Selects will release “Dheepan” stateside; it’s their fourth win in a decade.
An engrossing, often mesmerising story about a Tamil Tiger fighter who escapes Sri Lanka for the derelict suburbs of Paris where murder and violence follow him. Directed by Jacques Audiard, it’s a compelling story; a man whose entire unit and family have been murdered, who finds a fake wife and daughter to assume the identity of a dead man and emigrate. Dheepan’s final act may disintegrate into a “Taxi”-style violent flare-up which throws the story out of kilter, unbalancing the effectiveness of the piece. But this is still classy, powerful cinema from the same man (and writer) who brought “A Prophet” and “Rust And Bone” to Cannes Competition.
The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Sri Lankan refugees of Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan,” who flee their war-torn homeland only to find themselves in a new kind of conflict zone in the housing projects of Paris. A typically unpredictable career move by the prolific and varied Audiard following the unabashedly melodramatic romance “Rust and Bone” and the searing crime drama “A Prophet,” this almost entirely Tamil-language immigrant drama unfolds in solidly involving, carefully observed fashion for much of its running time, until it takes a sharp and heavy-handed turn into genre territory from which it never quite recovers.
Audiard possesses a lyricism that makes his film stand out, even in the final bloody confrontation. “Dheepan” is as interested in the accretion of detail, and thereby understanding what makes a family unit work, as in the rituals of street combat – though, as he’s shown in the past, he’s very good at that too. This may not be the director’s most immediately electrifying film, but in its understated way, it’s an immensely powerful work.
Audiard seems more interested in the character’s instinctual response as a man unaccustomed to having something personal to protect. Much of the violence is glimpsed only in hazy fragments, so it’s the emotional stakes etched into the fully lived-in performances that make the climactic action so riveting. (The lead actor is a published author, essayist and activist who himself escaped from a past as a boy soldier until age 19 with the Tamil Tigers.)