French film unpacks the pain of immigrant life
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Cast: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby
Everyday details—be it the flash of fireworks in an otherwise darkened suburb, or sunlight cutting through heavy clouds—take on stunning beauty in Jacques Audiard's (The Prophet, Rust and Bone) Palme d'Or winner, Dheepan. These details, deftly imbued with weight when they come into focus, offer a beauty that is redemptive in the otherwise bleak world of three Tamil immigrants living outside of Paris.
The first sequence of the film follows Yalini (played with heart-wrenching bitterness by the worry-filled Kalieaswari Srinivasan) as she races around a Sri Lankan refugee camp asking each family she encounters, “Is this your child?” Having found a 9-year-old girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), whose parents are dead, she makes her way to a tent where a man is selling the passports of a dead family. Here, she meets and is paired up with the titular character of Dheepan (played by former Tamil soldier and novelist Jesuthasan Antonythasan) who assumes the role of husband, and the three become a tenuous family, bonded by necessity, in order to seek asylum in France. The three are forced, literally and metaphorically, to abandon their identities as they move into a new world. “Dheepan” is the name on the main character's passport, rather than his real one, and his life, formerly marked by nationalism and ideology, is now loosened of it.
With Audiard's effusive style, the film moves from post-civil war Sri Lanka to Paris with ease. There's a blurred neon flashing cutting through the darkness, the frames are slowed down and Dheepan comes into focus, wearing Mickey Mouse ears as he hawks trinkets to tourists on the sidewalks of the capital. It's spirit-sapping to see the Liberation Tiger warrior Dheepan diminished. He goes home to Yalini and Illayaal at dawn, and the three seem just as foreign to one another as they do to France.
Soon the family is relocated to a housing project in the suburbs of Paris, where the pain of immigrant life is even more sharply brought into focus. The apartment block to which they move is primarily a site for drug dealing and gang activity. As such, the story successfully transcribes the violence of turbulent post-civil war Sri Lanka to a French public housing unit wherein low-level menace is a furious constant. Dheepan takes on work as the maintenance man of the apartment unit and Yalini works as the caretaker of a tenant nearby while Illayaal attempts to transition into French public school. Joined not by love, but through the struggle for survival, the three attempt to fabricate normality out of the tension and turmoil—and it almost seems like it is going to work.
The plot takes on a new pace when ex-prisoner Brahim, who lives with the man that Yalini acts as caretaker for, appears. With Brahim's return the violence just outside their window—which Yalini and Dheepan frequently linger in front of, staring outside, wishing they could extricate themselves from the grim concrete apartment blocks and nagging tensions of their new life—escalates. Dheepan, wishing to exert control, to establish harmony for the sake of his make-shift family, irreversibly embroils himself in the action. To jeers and taunts that harp upon Dheepan's race more than anything, Dheepan, heart-wrenchingly tries to make change, but flounders. Dheepan clearly illustrates that for the impoverished, there is no escape from the world's brutality.
In what seems almost to be a shift in genre, the final scenes are the action-packed fodder of a crime drama, not of the quiet and contemplative film that precedes them. Dheepan is unable to escape violence, and as he is thrust back into the tumult of battle—this time in the gritty housing projects of Paris—the full breadth of his character is more fully realized. This is a man that has not just suffered, but has participated in atrocities, and the action of the film does not allow him to forget them or place them firmly in the past.
Every last character in Dheepan is emotionally complex, even the gangster Brahim, and Audiard treats them with compassion and sympathy. Whether it is biting interpersonal conflict or widespread cruelty and disorder, the characters struggle toward escape, read: greater humanity. Dheepan can be excruciating to watch because we want so badly for the characters to succeed. The ending may feel improbable at best, totally illogical at worst, but still manages to satisfy if you one can suspend a scrap of disbelief.
In Dheepan, Audiard has constructed a heartrending parable, particularly in light of greater migration into Europe. With a mastery of style that is firmly rooted in the telling details—a scornful glance, a body moving into the ever-increasing dark, an elephant stirring from a forest canopy, the peeling of yellowed wallpaper—Audiard creates a film with rare conscience that unfolds one story of immigration to illuminate us all.