Dheepan Asks, What Happens After a Refugee Reaches Western Europe?

Dheepan

Dheepan
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Opens May 6

A soberly moving drama about displacement and identity, the Palme d’Or–winning Dheepan follows three Sri Lankans as they flee their island’s civil war and seek to start anew in France. The seventh feature by A Prophet’s Jacques Audiard stars novelist and onetime child soldier Jesuthasan Antonythasan, an unsmiling yet appealing presence, as a former Tamil Tiger who hastily recruits a “wife” and “daughter” to match the set of documents he’s procured at a refugee camp—all to bolster their case with the French immigration authorities. Dheepan, the twentysomething Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and the 9-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who have all long since lost their actual families, might be nothing more than strangers thrown together by circumstance. But as they ship out for Europe under the cover of darkness, all they have is each other.

Upon arrival in France, Dheepan hawks light-up baubles and bubble guns on the street, before landing steadier work as a janitor at a run-down housing project in the Parisian suburb of Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, where the majority of the film takes place. Here, Audiard (working with cinematographer Éponine Momenceau) displays a remarkable visual ingenuity with the deliberately drab setting: We watch Dheepan watch out the window as drug-cartel members, who have the run of things in the neighborhood, carouse after hours, and we huddle in close as the handyman tinkers with all manner of devices in his shop. As Illayaal enters school and Yalini and Dheepan, starved for affection, fall into bed together, it seems that the ersatz family is finally developing into a real one, even as Yalini bristles at the whole arrangement (she still has hopes of joining her cousin in London, and maintains she would leave Dheepan and Illayaal in the lurch to do so). Yet the assimilative family act, however outwardly successful, only winds up bringing these three into the heart of another kind of war zone altogether.

For the most part, Audiard resists making neat—and reductive—parallels between the scorched-earth political violence in Sri Lanka and the sporadic gun battles that erupt in and around the housing estate. One might look the other way and hope for the best, as the block’s complacent residents appear to have been in the habit of doing. While taking care of an elderly neighbor, Yalini winds up befriending the local kingpin (Vincent Rottiers), a calculating organized criminal who nonetheless seems to reserve some kindness for her; to him, bloodshed itself is not itself desirable but just another cost of doing business. For his part, Dheepan himself doesn’t become a target until he elects to take a stand against the drug traffickers.

As the previously hushed Dheepan flares into gunfire and other explosions, it’s hard not to feel a little let down. The Sri Lankan backstory of the protagonist is mostly limited to a few dreamy flashbacks, the result being that the protagonist’s motivations become a bit of a muddle. How much does the man’s resistance have to do with a desire to protect his would-be wife and daughter, and how much of it is just him lapsing back into a berserker state? In its later stretches, Dheepan too often seems like a vigilante psych evaluation that’s been left partially incomplete. That’s not enough, though, to stop Audiard’s film from being admirable on the whole—as a study of tenuous family dynamics, and as a humanist drama that brings home the sheer loneliness of the asylum seeker, it’s an arresting piece of work.

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