By Pamela Zoslov
French writer and director Jacques Audiard’s seventh feature film, Dheepan, was the winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and has garnered many other awards as well. The timeliness of its story about refugees may have been a factor in its acclaim: the film focuses on the plight of Sri Lankan refugees, featuring unknown Tamil actors speaking the Tamil language and French. It is an unusual work — slow-paced, quiet, artfully filmed, emotionally understated and deeply humane, with a climactic paroxysm of violence said to be influenced by Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.
Audiard is best known as the writer and director of the 2009 A Prophet and the 2012 Rust and Bone.
As the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka nears its endi, Tamil Tiger freedom fighter Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), who’s on the losing side, is forced to move to a refugee camp. Hoping to move to France and get political asylum, he acquires the passport of a dead man named Dheepan and teams with two other refugees, a woman named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a 9-year-old girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The three, posing as a family, land in a bleak Paris suburb, where Dheepan gets a job as caretaker of a run-down tenement where violent drug dealers hold sway. The three refugees have trouble adjusting to the French culture and language, but Dheepan does his best to improve the property and make a life for his created family.
Yalini reluctantly takes a job cooking and housekeeping for an infirm elderly man in an apartment where armed thugs do business. Young Illayaal has difficulties in her French school and gets slaps instead of sympathy from Yalini, who resists caring for a girl who’s not her daughter. Dheepan and Yalini develop tender feelings for each other, but Illayaal longs to flee the dangerous environment — too much like the violence she fled — and join her cousin in England. At one point she tries to board a train and is stopped by Dheepan, who seizes her passport.
Dheepan’s past revisits him when his old rebel leader comes to him demanding that he raise $100,000 to buy Lebanese weapons for the defeated fighters back home. A drug gang turf war between apartment blocks rekindles his Tamil Tiger fighting instincts.
The film has authentic feeling for the refugees and their problems, as well as their native culture. A Hindu religious ceremony the refugees attend is beautifully rendered with the help of Eponine Momenceau’s lyrical cinematography. Less convincing are the suburban Paris landscape the refugees inhabit — a drab, post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited entirely by criminals — and the eruption of action-movie violence in the final 15 minutes.
Lead actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a novelist and political activist, was in real life a Tamil Tigers boy soldier in Sri Lanka. Like his character, he fled to France. The authenticity he brings to the role is offset somewhat by his impassive (some might say dull) demeanor.
A far more arresting presence is Srinivasan, whose first feature film this is. Her quietly emotional acting is the film’s most compelling feature. Her scenes with the drug dealer Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), one of her employers, are brilliant, teetering precariously between empathy and danger. The script, by Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, gives her a well-observed speech about the cultural differences between her home country and France. “In Sri Lanka, when you fall and hurt yourself, you smile,” she explains to Brahim, who’s frustrated by her noncommital head-bobbing. “Here, if you smile too much, people think you don’t undersatand or are making fun.” In French and Tamil, with subtitles. Grade: B