Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, the latest film from acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard is a gripping and intense drama about refugee life and integration.
Dheepan’s Palme d’Or was followed this February by the Golden Bear to Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at sea” a documentary about the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa.
It is emblematic that, in a moment when immigration has become an issue that threatens to break Europe apart, two of the most prestigious International prizes were awarded to these films.
The story of Sri Lankan refugees living on the violent outskirts of Paris, Dheepan may not directly relate to the current crisis, however, the film puts forward a few universal expressions of the immigrants experience, offering a harsh but fair look at the tough life of refugees looking for a new home in a foreign nation.
Audiard, director and co-writer, wanted to tell a story that put the audience in the shoes of a refugee escaping war for the promise of a better life. In an interview Audiard said that the purpose of his film was: “To give a face, a name, a body, and thought to people who are invisible, unidentified and unqualified, and thus to give them life.”
A master of realist cinema, Audiard shot the film largely in the Tamil language and centred its cast on three non-professional actors.
The film tells the story of three strangers, a traumatised Tamil soldier, Dheepan, a young woman, Yalini, and a child, Illayaal, who meet at a refugee camp in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War and pose as a family in order to gain political asylum in Europe.
Through a nearly wordless, essential, opening we are shown the characters’ desperate meeting and their voyage to the west on a crowded boat. Audiard jumps smoothly through time and forces the audience to catch up with only the barest context, producing an emotionally suspenseful prologue.
The fake family ends up in a crime-ridden housing estate in Le Pre-Saint-Gervais, a suburb of Paris, where Dheepan gets a job as a caretaker. New codes must again be learned, and new negotiations made – particularly with the dodgy gang who controls the local drugs trade, and who occupies one of the blocks every morning.
The kid, Illayaal, starts school and the woman posing as Dheepan’s “wife” works as a cook and cleaner for an infirm old man, one of whose closest relatives, Brahim is a young and charismatic gangster boss, fresh out of prison. His arrival provokes tension within the gang, a tension that gradually escalates into extreme violence culminating with Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal finding themselves caught in the crossfire of a gang war.
In that moment the characters realize they have fled the violence of their own country, only to be exposed to violence of a different kind.
Dheepan, a former revolutionary, reacts to the threat by returning to guerrilla mode letting the fierce fighter within him resurface once again in the banlieues.
The tension that has built up throughout the story finally explodes in the last act. An eruption of violence so extreme that catches the audience off-guard. The tone of the film suddenly switches from the quiet realism of the beginning to a spectacular, adrenalin-fueled crime melodrama.
This sharp change has left some critics disappointed, some argued that the action sequence was somewhat contrived and unconvincing causing the film to lose the understated subtlety that worked so well until then.
Although the scenes are beautifully shot with outstanding camera work, it is true that Dheepan is most effective in the earlier more tender, humane scenes, depicting the lives of these three strangers, whose only true bond is their escape from their previous life, trying to live together as a family in an alien place.
It’s fascinating to see how their relationship evolves. We watch them find their way in this new life as they struggle with the language, the new culture and with the forced cohabitation. Then, slowly, the barriers between them start to crumble and, day-by-day, through the mundane business of living, the three edge towards some sort of intimacy, almost turning into the family they are pretending to be. The shared sense of hardship and loneliness eventually binds them together.
Audiard is a master in channelling emotions through small, unspoken even trivial moments delivering this extraordinary powerful human tale of survival.
However, he couldn’t have achieved this without the phenomenal interpretations of his two lead characters.
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan was himself a former child soldier in the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who in the 1980’s fled the country with the help of fake documents and illegal traffickers and arrived in France. There he became an acclaimed writer, novelist and political activist. In an interview he said he was surprised by how little western people know about Sri Lanka’s long and bloody civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009 and claimed up to 100,000 lives, according to UN reports. Interestingly, Audiard didn’t know about his past until the early days of the shooting when finally Jesuthasan revealed to him how close his life was to the character he was about to interpret. His dark intensity suggests that Dheepan’s war is the one raging inside him and perhaps by drawing from his own memories he managed to land such a realistic and powerful performance.
Kalieaswari Srinivasan as Yalini, is an Indian stage actress also making her film debut here. Through her nuanced and magnetic performance she makes Yalini the real emotional centre of the story, a young woman forced to become a wife and mother when she still has to figure out who she is herself.
The film ends with an optimistic epilogue that leaves the audience wondering if it’s a reality or a fantasy, a dream the characters wish to realize one day.
The brilliance of the narrative lies in the perfect balance struck between the hard realism of the subject and the cinematic lyricism that permeates the film from beginning to end.
Audiard never gets carried away by over-sentimentalism and political didacticism, his narrative is objective and non-judgmental towards his characters. As in all his other films, his heroes are outcasts in an hostile society but they are never perfect characters, they are ordinary people, with many flaws and weaknesses.
Dheepan presents us with the realities many refugees have to face when they arrive in Europe: the alienation in an unfamiliar society; the difficulty of finding a job and a place to stay, the struggle to learn a new language and get used to an unknown culture, the lack of governmental assistance for asylum seekers.
The film captures with authenticity this frustration immigrants have to face, the reality of being treated every day as a second class citizen. The director’s intention was precisely to present the contrast between these characters’ complex stories, and their complete anonymity in public, where they are ignored as faceless service workers. This is a divide that we all experience on a daily basis.
Dheepan is certainly not a perfect movie and probably not even Audiard’s best achievement, but it deserves praise for attempting to bridge that gap and for bringing a wave of cultural diversity in contemporary European cinema.