Cast: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers
Director: Jacques Audiard
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Jacques Audiard's well-meaning, but tonally confused immigrant story Dheepan, which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes, is a situation of a talented filmmaker tripping over his own moralistic feet. The early moments, centering on three strangers escaping a Tamil refugee camp in order to find sanction at a Paris housing project, are imbued with representational detail and warmth; suggesting a melding of domestic drama with timely refugee parable. However, Audiard doesn't quite trust his story's inherent power; choosing to draw a didactic parallel between war-torn Sri Lanka and the gang-infested outskirts of France. This makes the film's eventual descent into Rambo-style revenge thriller all the more frustrating. It's not the fact that Dheepan goes there that's the problem, but rather, that it offers such simplistic catharsis for such a deeply complicated issue.
Still, there's much to admire here, not the least of which is the superb performances from a mostly unprofessional cast. Antonythasan Jesuthasan holds the screen as the soft-spoken titular character; a man with a checkered past fleeing civil war in order to start a new life, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan matches him as the more extroverted Yalini, a woman posing as his wife. There's also an orphan given the identity as the couple's daughter, Illayall, played by Claudine Vinasithamby with just the right amount of child-like naiveté and stubbornness. The three unlikely strangers form a family unit; with Dheepan working as a public housing groundskeeper, Yalini taking on responsibilities as a caretaker for a disabled drug lord whose apartment forms a meeting place for local gang members, and Illayall struggling with adjusting to the French school system. It's a rather typical fish-out-of-water setup to be sure, but it's given a unique perspective by having the central conflict told from the perspective of the immigrants instead of wedging in a French framing device or some other audience analogue. Also compelling is the idea of domesticated bonds forged through necessity and survival, as Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayal eventually become close simply through pretending to be a family. The scenes between Jesuthasan and Srinivasan are often believably tentative, with the two non actors navigating social awkwardness with moments of genuine tenderness effortlessly. The film is at it's best when simply focusing on their relationship and the ways they navigate both their emotional uncertainties as well as those inherent in a dangerous geographical space, but Audiard cannot help indulging in some of his worst instincts.
For one thing, rendering the Parisian housing development as a mirror image of the war zones from which the family has escaped leaves out any sense of contextual specificity. Both environments have similarities, but the eventual message the picture lands on is much too facile to be swallowed at face value. Dheepan's inability to move beyond his wartime past turns things into a revenge fantasy thriller; conjuring images of Charles Bronson via Taxi Driver that feel germane to the story even as such moments are staged with all the subtlety of a Robert Rodriguez demo reel. Abandoning the domestic intimacy of the family unit for the introduction of a suave drug dealer (Vincent Rottiers) that puts Yalini in immediate danger also feels like a cheat, as if Auidard grew tired of naturalism and wanted to stir the genre pot. Additionally, the way the third act spirals out of control isn't so much inconceivable as it is poorly executed, with shaky hand-held camerawork and a muddled sense of action geography that sees Dheepan going rouge in order to purge his demons and save the day.
Depicting modern France as a direct facsimile to countries engaged in civil war is more than a bit disingenuous, as is turning Dheepan into a killing machine merely to make a broader thematic point. Still, Auidard's desire to tell this kind of story, which is rarely seen cinematically, is welcome, as is the naturalistic performances from a game cast. If only Dheepan respected it's characters enough not to devolve into uber-masculine posturing in order to make it's points about the global problems with immigration, then this might have been a emotionally affecting powerhouse. Instead, what we have here is a well-acted, nominally effective family drama, that eventually gets up on a pulpit and preaches a redemption arc.