There is a beautiful and seductive moment in Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan where the director tastefully films the back of a naked Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) walking into a darkened bedroom. It is a simple shot that, in a few brief seconds, speaks volumes to a pivotal turning point for the main characters. It is sequences like this, that say so much by doing so little, which make Dheepan such an intriguing film.
Opening with a powerful image of Tamil soldiers burning the dead bodies of their own, Dheepan looks at the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s Civil War from the eyes of those who have lived through it. Tired of fighting the war, which caused him to lose his entire family, a soldier (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is desperate to leave his homeland and start a new life. Assuming the identity of a fallen comrade, named “Dheepan,” the soldier agrees to form a makeshift refugee family with a woman, Yalini, and an orphaned girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), in order to immigrate illegally to France. Ending up in the slums of Paris, Dheepan and his “family” find it difficult to adapt to a new land where they cannot speak the language.
As if navigating a new culture was not tough enough, their situation is complicated further by the fact that they live and work, Dheepan as a caretaker and Yalini as a homecare provider, within a group of housing projects run by rival gangs. It also does not help that a volatile person from Dheepan’s past has tracked him down in his new land. While Dheepan dreams of putting his old ways behind him, it soon becomes clear that violence is a curse that seems to haunt him wherever he goes.
Similar to the journey that the Tamil trio find themselves on, Dheepan is a film that strives for an idealistic world, but ultimately cannot escape the harsh realities of life. The bulk of the film is a subtle, but effective study of the immigrant experience. Audiard expertly takes his time to explore how Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayaal struggle to navigate their new surrounding and each other. When Yalini coldly asks Dheepan “did you end up believing the story?,” it is another reminder that this is no fairy tale. These people have been forced together out of desperation not love. Any semblance of family they knew is dead, so how does one fake what they no longer know?
By time the film takes a darkly violent turn in the last act, and the family finds themselves in conflict with a gang leader named Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), Audiard has already ensured that the audience is fully engaged in the characters. While they may not be a family to each other, the viewer sees them as one. Like all family units, they are broken in their own way, but the audience is rooting for them to pull the pieces together.
Dheepan’s simple and extremely effective story is propelled even further by Audiard’s keen visual eye and the stellar performances by the principle leads. Whether he is evoking an image of paradise by showing an elephant roaming the Sri Lankan forest or following gang members as they ride to their next hit, there is an eloquent beauty to every aspect of this film. This is only emphasized by the fine work of the cast. Jesuthasan Antonythasan is strong as the emotionally damaged Dheephan who is unable to shake his demons. However, the real scene stealers of the piece are Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby. As Yalini and Illayaal, both actresses effectively encapsulate the pains that come with being in a war-torn country and the hardships of being outsiders in a foreign land.
While winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year has greatly raised Dheepan’s profile, almost to its detriment as some may go in expecting an earth shattering experience, which it is not, it is important to remember that Dheepan is first and foremost a character study of broken souls learning to co-exist. It is a moving and effective portrait of immigrants who strive for a better life, but are only met with further hardship.