Dheepan (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers, Faouzi Bensaïdi, Marc Zinga
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenplay: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Noe Debre
Review published June 17, 2016
Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) directs and co-scripts this insightful drama with mild thriller elements about three unrelated refugees from the war-torn island nation of Sri Lanka who find it hard to assimilate to life in the rough-and-tumble public housing projects of Paris. Dheepan is the name of a dead man that the older man of the trio assumes the identity of in order to escape from his life as a rebel fighter on the losing side, hoping to make a better life in France after the loss of his family. Along for the ride is a woman and an unrelated nine-year-old orphan, who assume the roles of Dheepan's wife and child. While living in a run-down housing project in Paris, Dheepan takes a job as a building caretaker, which is a difficult enough occupation without having to worry about the dangerous thugs who inhabit the neighborhood at seemingly all hours.
The film mostly examines the difficulties of overcoming the great social, economic, cultural, and language barriers that exist for many immigrants to Europe, sympathetically drawing on peeks into the private lives of people that many outsiders would consider someone unworthy of a second chance in life, especially in their neighborhood. It also looks at the difficulties of trying to make it as a make-shift family in which there's not that life-long emotional connection, forced to coexist as one for outside appearances, having to assume those familiar roles even when in their apartment to make things work, leaving us to wonder if they might actually become a reality in terms of romantic pairings and in having to raise a child who has emotional needs that her replacement mother and father don't seem interested on fulfilling.
Yalini, Dheepan's "wife", ends up taking a caretaking job of her own, catering to the needs of an older man named Mr. Habib, whose apartment seems to be a mini base of operations for a gang of shifty drug dealers. Yalini soon develops an attraction for one of the heads in the crime ring, Mr. Habib's parolee nephew Brahim, seeing the softer side to this man that she eventually sees the true nature of, especially when Dheepan begins to make an effort to bring some order to the chaos around the neighborhood. A tertiary story involves the young "daughter, Illayaal, and her difficulties in fitting in, whether at school or at home.
Respect is given to a French film that utilizes so much of the Tamil language. The casting, especially on the actors from Sri Lanka, is brilliant, especially in the work by lead performer Jesuthasan Antonythasan, himself once a soldier as a youth in the 1980s who eventually emigrated to France, where he would replace his weapons or writing implements by becoming an author. His life experience makes up for his lack of experience as an actor, having only appeared in a film once before in 2011's Sengadal.
If the film slips, it is toward the hurried, overreaching finale, which turns the thoughtful and grounded story into the kind of crime-revenge story you once used to see starring Clint Eastwood, usually while in a cowboy hat. From a chance meeting with a scary escaped Tamil Tigers colonel who doesn't see an end to their violent struggle, to shootouts that break out among the armed ruffians who chaotically control the streets outside, the film seems to go from a simmer to high flames for the main characters in a way that makes the last part of the story feel like a different kind of film than what had come with the air of perceptible authenticity the ninety minutes prior. While the film does draw a contrast early that the Sri Lankan refugees have merely jumped out of that frying pan only to find themselves still among the flames, Dheepan also makes that jump that ruins so many other films of going from an engrossing film and becoming a traditional movie.
However, thought it does deflate from the solid dramatic build-up somewhat, the left turn the story takes doesn't break the film, as there are too many interesting and engrossing elements that make Dheepan one to watch for those looking for the story of an immigrant that is similar to the stories of many who've escaped dire situations for the chance of a better life elsewhere, yet is so rare to be told with as much rich detail as Jacques Audiard, whose film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2015 and was nominated for nine Cesar Awards, brings to three quarters of an excellent film.
©2016 Vince Leo