With the current refugee crisis, Jacques Audiard’s award-winning Dheepan couldn’t have come at a more prescient time with its humane look at three Tamil migrants who flee Sri Lanka for France.
TIFF 2015 Film Reviews by Rumnique Nannar
Dheepan opens in Sri Lanka, where Liberation Tigers are burning the bodies of their fellow comrades, including Sivadhasan who’ll become Dheepan (Anthonythasan Jesuthasan), who swaps his military uniform for plain civilian clothes to slip back into society. We also meet Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) who’s scouring the refugee camps for abandoned children, not for nefarious purposes, but to make a fake family unit to slip into France. She finds orphan Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) and the three strangers are thrown together as a makeshift family to escape their harrowing lives for a new continent.
In a telling introduction to their lives in France, we see flickers of red and blue light which give way to Dheepan and his gang of hawkers wearing light-up bunny ears that they’re selling to the public. It’s a striking image that’s heartbreaking in it’s familiarity with the sellers who populate major cities across Europe. But it’s when he gets a job as a caretaker at a rough housing estate that the film gains some momentum, letting the audience see how each character clashes and assimilates into their new culture.
Whether it’s Illayaal running out on her first day of school with nerves, or Yalini struggling with her limited French, there’s rarely been a film that tackles the struggles of immigrants with such authenticity. There’s a pervasive sense of yearning for home in each of them, which Audiard weaves throughout in their fragile interactions as a pretend family. Ilayaal is acting out at school, which Yalini doesn’t know how to deal with since she’s been handed a child and husband to oversee. She’s also the unpredictable character who strikes up an infatuation with the local gangster, while envisioning London as a better alternative to escape too.
There’s also the hesitant and tender romance between Dheepan and Yalini that’s really affecting, especially in a funny moment where Yalini explains that Dheepan has no sense of humour when he doesn’t understand the French jokes of his workmates. The trio of actors are terrific and imbue their roles with such verve and feeling. Jesuthasan was a former child soldier and an acclaimed novelist and playwright, but what a sterling actor he is with this film. Srinivasan and Vinasithamby complete the film with their affecting performances, especially Vinasithamby who unfortunately does take a backseat in the tense second half.
However, with most Audiard films there’s a sense of looming dread that threatens to undo their family unit. Amidst a happy scene where Dheepan and Yalini have a picnic with other Tamil families, Dheepan is recognized by a former soldier who takes him to his disturbed former Colonel. This traumatic incident for Dheepan kicks off his buried PTSD and he soon clashes with the local drug gang on the estate. Although the war is seemingly over for him, Dheepan clings to his role as a protector, making Yalini and Ilayaal the family he can save.
The conclusion received middling responses from critics despite picking up the prestigious Palme D’Or at Cannes, and as soon as the film shifted gears there were a few walkouts at the TIFF screening I attended. However jarring this conclusion is, it hardly came out of nowhere as Audiard builds up Dheepan’s paranoia to make this genre convention fit. It is also incredible to see a filmmaker attempt to deliver a Tamil version of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle with his conclusion.
Dheepan is an intimate character study that drops our preconceived notions about migrant workers, and makes the audience empathize with Audiard’s brash statement.