Directed by: Jacques Audiard.
Written by: Jacques Audiard & Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré.
Starring: Jesuthasan Antonythasan (Dheepan/ Sivadhasan), Kalieaswari Srinivasan (Yalini), Claudine Vinasithamby (Illayaal), Vincent Rottiers (Brahim), Faouzi Bensaïdi (Monsieur Habib), Marc Zinga (Youssouf), Bass Dhem (Azziz), Franck Falise (Janitor of Hall C), Joséphine de Meaux (Headmistress), Jean-Baptiste Pouilloux (jurist), Nathan Anthonypillai (Interpreter), Vasanth Selvam (Colonel Cheran).
Dheepan is three quarters of a great movie, where, unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t seem to know how the story should end, so they tack on an action movie climax to an otherwise quiet, closely observed character study. The film was directed by Jacques Audiard – who also did The Beat My Heart Skipped, A Prophet and Rust & Bone – and it must be said that he knows how to direct that action movie climax brilliantly – doing so in a way that isn’t quite like anything in a Hollywood action movie, while still be viscerally satisfying. Still, it’s disappointing that the film goes there instead of trying to do something more complex – like the rest of the film is.
The movie opens in Sri Lanka, which is where we first meet Sivadhasan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) – a member of the Tamil Tigers, whose first action is to cover up some dead bodies with palm leaves as they are set on fire. Flash forward to a refugee camp where a young woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) is searching for a girl who can pass for 9-years old – any girl will do. She finally finds one (Claudine Vinasithamby), and takes her to a shack where she, the girl and Sivadhasan, are all given new passports – taken from dead bodies. They are now to pose as a family – Sivadhasan is now Dheepan, the young woman is now his wife Yalini and the girl is Illayaal – and they are shipped off to France as refugees. Dheepan ends up getting a job as a caretaker of a huge housing project that is basically run by drug dealers, who do nothing to hide their actions from him or anyone else. He’s been told to ignore them, and work around them, and that’s what he does. Yalini longs to leave, and go to a cousin in England, but Dheepan wants her to stay – the only way their ruse will work is if she sticks it out. She eventually gets a job cooking and cleaning for an invalid in one of the buildings – although a scary drug dealer, Brahaim (Vincent Rottiers) basically uses that apartment as a front. Yalini feels nothing for Dheepan – or their “daughter” – at least not at first. Illayaal is scared – which is natural – and has some trouble at school, before she settles in. She is also the only one who initially knows any French, and she tries her best to translate for her new parents.
In the first couple of acts of Dheepan, the film does a masterful job at showing how these three characters interact with the world outside their apartment – and with each other inside of it. Outside, they try their best to put on a happy front, but it’s hard. The movie shows how these characters are dislocated from everything they know – how hard it is to fit in a country where you do not speak the language, and the difficulty on maintaining their charade. The drug dealers who run the project look straight through Dheepan – like he isn’t even there. His past in Sri Lanka is never more than hinted it – both in terms of what exactly he did in the war – how many people he killed, etc. – and his personal life, including a perhaps dead family. Antonythasan is terrific in the role – that echoes his own story (although he fled far younger than his character did) – as he registers so much of his pain on his face. Srinivasan is his equal as Yalini – we know absolutely nothing about her past – and her gradual softening towards both Dheepan and Illayaal – she used them to get away from Sri Lanka – but has no intent of sticking around. But being in such close proximity will inevitably do something to you. There are tender moments between her and Dheepan. Her “friendship” with Brahim is interesting as well – when she first enters that building, she is terrified – the long stairway she has to ascend is dark, there are drug dealers and chained up pit bulls around every corner. Brahim seems nice at times – and there is a terrific scene where she reveals things to him that she never does anyone else in the film – and she only does so because she knows he cannot understand a word she is saying. Rottiers is terrific as Brahim – he can be very charming and likable, but he’s able to flip a switch, and violence flares into his eyes, and you know he is capable of killing anyone who maybe a threat to him. Vinasithamby as Illayaal is quite good, in what is ultimately an underwritten role. The film seems to lose interest in her story fairly on, which is a shame. After all, if Dheepan and Yalini are struggling to assimilate, and hold onto themselves, how much more difficult would that be for a child, who has lost everything, and is now thrust into a new “family” in a country she does not understand.
Dheepan fits in very neatly with the other Audiard films I mentioned above – all of which, on some level, are about violent people who try to leave that behind, and gain some sort of redemption. Audiard does a great job in Dheepan of showing how these three people leave chaos in their own country, and enter a completely new kind of chaos in what was supposed to be a more peaceful, civilized place. He draws two excellent performances out of his non-experienced leading actors. But the ending really does not work – or to put it more bluntly, is far too conventional an ending for everything that leads up to it. That Dheepan has violence in him was something known from the beginning – but the way it explodes out of him seems rather arbitrary and contrived, no matter how well staged it was by Audiard. I’m not sure what to make of the very last shot in the movie either – which is, I think, an attempt to return to what was happening before the violence – but I’m not sure quite works.
Dheepan won the Palme D’or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – arguably the most prestigious award in all of cinema. That in a year where the official competition contain films like Son of Sail, Mountains May Depart, The Assassin, Sicario, The Lobster and Carol that Dheepan would be judged to be the best is, to me, rather obviously wrong. Yet, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to like about Dheepan – from its performances, to almost everything in first three quarters of the film, to even the staging of the action in the last act. Yes, I think Audiard has made better films before, and the ending here hits the wrong notes. But everything until then is excellent.