French auteur Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) unspools a searing immigrant’s tale in his latest crime drama, Dheepan, a rare look at the lives of Sri Lankan refugees fleeing one war zone for another: The gang-ridden housing projects of Paris.
The Cannes Palme d’Or winner opens on a note of despair in the chaotic aftermath of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. A rebel fighter (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) buries a comrade before burning the fatigues that mark his role in the country’s decades-long internal conflict.
Meanwhile, in a holding camp teeming with displaced citizens, a woman named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) frantically searches for a child who can pass as her own daughter.
She finds one, a quiet girl named Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) whose parents died in the war believed to have claimed as many as 100,000 lives, including countless civilians killed in attacks by both the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, since 1983.
In an instant the three strangers—man, woman, and child—are thrust into a shared deception, assuming the identities of a family killed in the war in order to flee to Europe and start anew.
The man’s new name is Dheepan, and Audiard flashes forward to his new life in Paris in one brilliantly illuminating scene. A reputed and deadly Tamil Tiger soldier back home, Dheepan is now one of the countless immigrants peddling glow sticks and headbands for 2 Euros a pop on the sidewalks of France.
As Dheepan’s face comes wordlessly into focus, Audiard’s lens captures the arresting duality in Jesuthan’s weary, wary eyes—one that betrays much more to the audience than it does to the strangers he meets on the street. (Adding to a deeply felt Cesar-nominated performance by celebrated Sri Lankan poet and author Jesuthan is the fact that at age 16 he himself was recruited as a child soldier by the Tamil Tigers before fleeing to Hong Kong, Thailand, and eventually France, where he was granted political asylum.)
France offers new kinds of daunting experiences for a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, but Dheepan’s attempt to gain asylum is aided by a sympathetic immigration translator who rewrites his too-obvious cover story. He tells an inverted version of the truth, claiming to flee from the violence of his homeland—but not that he was one of those responsible for the bloodshed.
Dheepan, Yalini, and nine-year-old Illayaal move into a housing project in Le Pre-Saint-Gervais where Dheepan lands a job as the resident groundskeeper. It’s a rough cement block living—local thugs police the lawless housing blocks and occasionally hurl racist epithets—but a dream compared to the nightmare they’ve all escaped. And so the faux family charges on with their charade, negotiating their new lives stuck with one another while smiling to the outside world, terrified of losing it all.
The trio navigates their new reality in a strange land, forced to learn a new language and depend on one another under a façade of domestic normalcy. Dheepan chronicles the bewildering challenges of the immigrant experience without giving way to cloying or trite pandering. Young Illayaal, bright and mature beyond her years, endures isolation both at school, where she’s an unwelcome outsider, and at home, where she yearns for parental love from a father and mother who are anything but nurturing.
Srinivasan turns in an absorbing performance as Yalini, a woman not yet ready nor willing to be wife or mother—roles she must play for appearance’s sake. She dreams of abandoning her “family” for London, where she has relatives who will take her in, but is forbidden from fleeing by the domineering Dheepan, who desperately wants to believe in his new life and clean moral slate to appease his own tortured conscience.
They dance between co-conspirators and enemies, driven by their own conflicting desires to live freely beyond the shadow of their past lives. As Yalini rages, bursting to escape and forge her own way in the world, Srinivasan paints a multidimensional portrait of a woman screwed by circumstance. She invites him into her bed one night but makes it clear she is not his wife to command. Dheepan controls her passport and therefore her freedom, but he does not own her free will.
The lives of this makeshift family are just starting to approach something akin to contentedness when the ugliness of their new world emerges. Despite the drug dealers who line the block and menace the compound from the rooftops, the bullet-torn war zone of urban Paris is a downright civil microcosm of the battlegrounds back home. These gangsters are less dangerous than the ones back home, Dheepan assures Yalini.
She takes a job caring for an incapacitated neighboring man, Mr. Habib, and is happy to be making her own money. His living room also doubles for the local gang’s illicit dealings, and when the recently paroled Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) comes to stay with the old man she develops a tentative flirtation with the charismatic young crime boss.
But no one in Dheepan can play-act forever in the roles others have assigned them before pushing back to shape their own destiny. The same goes for Audiard, who turned some critics off with an audaciously staged finale that explodes into glorious, melancholic violence.
Confronted with a past that doesn’t want to let him go, Dheepan finally mourns all that he’s lost. A stroke of plotting finally allows him to embrace who he is—not the dutiful militant, and not a compliant caretaker, but something in between. He acts to defend the life he wants by putting his particular set of skills, a machete, and a screwdriver to good use in a stunning sequence by cinematographer Eponine Momenceau that plays, ever briefly and Charles Bronson-esque, like a gritty hybrid of Death Wish and District 13.
Audiard (who co-scripted with Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre) follows his cathartic burst of violence by closing Dheepan on a rather forced note which gives some members of his central trio more satisfying closure than others. But after sending his characters through the emotional ringer, perhaps he can be forgiven for giving them, and us, a chance to breathe.