To address the elephant in the room: No, “Dheepan“ probably shouldn’t have won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. An understandably controversial choice at the time, it wasn’t even the festival’s best feature about the psychic perils of migrating into central Europe (that honor goes to Jonas Carpignano’s studied and unflinching “Mediterranea,” which premiered as part of the International Critics’ Week program). For director Jacques Audiard to snag his industry’s greatest prize for “Dheepan” instead of his greater earlier efforts, “The Beat that My Heart Skipped” and “A Prophet,” is roughly tantamount to Martin Scorsese landing the Best Director Oscar for “The Departed” instead of “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas.”
And yet, “Dheepan” is peak Audiard, in that it represents everything that makes him one of the most exciting forces in contemporary French cinema — both the good and the bad. It’s almost too perfect a fit for a filmmaker who exclusively tells stories about people who suffer their way to freedom.
The film begins in the ashes of the Sri Lankan Civil War — survivors scatter around a refugee camp as victims are torched in a funeral pyre. Three passports have been salvaged from the dead, which means that three lucky people will have the chance to try for a new life in another country. A father, a mother, and their young daughter. Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) bears a close enough resemblance to try his luck as the man of the family. A young woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) with soft cheeks and a stunted future leaps at the opportunity to pose as his wife; the borrowed paperwork identifies her as Yalini, and that’s the only name by which she’ll be addressed going forward. The newly forged couple needs a preteen girl to play their child and complete the illusion, and so Sivadhasan snatches an unattended orphan he spots on the beach; her new name is Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby).
Together, the unfamiliar trio makes their way to France, where Sivadhasan begins selling cheap electric trinkets to tourists in order to feed his new “family.” Before long, a bilingual intermediary helps them secure temporary visas, and the three strangers are relocated to a small apartment in the rundown housing block of Le Pre-Saint-Gervais. The landlord promises them that they’ll get electricity soon, and leaves his newest tenants with a piece of advice: Try not to pay any attention to the intensifying drug wars that are happening in the building across the street.
Sivadhasan begins working as the local caretaker, while Yalini tends to an unwell old man who lives in the concrete jungle. Meanwhile, and perhaps most crucially, Illayaal enrolls in grade school; nothing galvanizes a fake family like PTA meetings. The prospect of new lives suddenly seems possible for these people, even if they’re ones that don’t belong to them.
Performative identity as a way of healing is ingrained into the DNA of “Dheepan,” as Jesuthasan is effectively reenacting his own personal history. Once a child soldier of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Jesuthasan was part of Sri Lanka’s secessionist nationalist insurgency — a group that is now internationally recognized as a terrorist organization. He left the LTTE before many of their most notorious acts of violence, defecting to Hong Kong before eventually making his way to France as a political refugee. Over time, we learn that Sivadhasan was also on the side of the insurgents, and we begin to suspect that he was less interested in running for his survival than he was from his shame.
Blessed with one of the great movie faces of our time — round and blank with a pudgy nose that looks like it decided to start over about halfway down — Jesuthasan has only been in one film before “Dheepan.” What a waste. It’s always an audacious move to ask someone to reenact their life on screen, but it’s easy to imagine how Jesuthasan regarded Audiard’s invitation as an opportunity to satisfy his demons. Watching Sivadhasan slowly allow himself to become Dheepan (or some approximation thereof), performing many of the same menial jobs that Jesuthasan once had to when he arrived in France, you can almost feel the actor retracing his steps.
Audiard’s films are each structured like purification rites, his characters cleansed by the hell of prison (“A Prophet”) or physical trauma (“Rust & Bone”) in order to emerge clean on the other side. “Dheepan” is no different — if anything, it’s too much of the same — but Audiard is never content with the hell that his title character carries inside of himself. Much of the movie unfolds like “A History of Violence” with an immigrant twist, as Sivadhasan and his surrogate family begin to sink deeper into their roles. Even in the dankest of apartments, you can only begin to play house for so long before it begins to feel like a home.
As Dheepan embraces life as the local super, Eponine Momenceau’s crisp cinematography endows his work with a sense of stoic dignity and viscerally demonstrates how these characters are steadied by their growing contentment. As they grow more comfortable in their new country, they grow more human, as well; survivalism gives way to shades of life. They make jokes. They begin to see each other as more than props. And even though Yalini gets sidetracked by some interest from one of the most powerful members of the housing block’s drug cartel (a character who proves to be a distraction for the film as a whole), she and Sivadhasan eventually begin to see each other as more than just accomplices.
For the most part, Sivadhasan does such a thorough job of repressing his previous life that he almost seems to deny it out of existence. But, as always seems to happen in movies like this, the moment that Sivadhasan begins to close the doors on his past is the moment that his past shoves a battering ram right through them. That’s when “Dheepan“ begins to splinter.
There are early signs of trouble: The filmmaker’s typical inflections of poeticism — here in the form of dreamy close-up shots of an elephant’s spotted pink skin — feel more like window dressing than they do an organic expression of Sivadhasan’s inner being. More distressingly, the gang hostilities that percolate on the lawn outside his window are kept too opaque to serve their ultimate purpose; Sivadhasan may want to pretend like they aren’t happening, but we don’t have that luxury.
The real trouble comes when Audiard grows impatient and abruptly starts to shove Sivadhasan towards salvation, even though he’s done such a graceful job of nudging him there. Seemingly frustrated by the the slow pace at which his hero’s trauma is rising to the surface, Audiard contrives a way to flip the bottle upside down and yanks out the cork. In the blink of an eye, the haunted former soldier goes full Rambo. Suddenly, the film no longer feels like Sivadhasan’s story, or even Jesuthasan’s, but rather Audiard’s. It might be the only story that he feels comfortable telling, but it’s not always a good fit. And while “Dheepan” recovers magnificently in its very last moments, the damage has been done. This is a strong movie about a man in need of a new start, made by someone who could benefit from one of his own.
“Dheepan” opens in theaters this Friday.