With an extraordinary central performance, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan offers a searing portrait of Europe as seen by the dispossessed.
Paris is Burningby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Told through the lens of Tamil refugees in France, Dheepan is a powerful, slow-burning story of the underbelly of migration. It starts amid flaring fires in tropical forests in Sri Lanka, where rebel Tamil Tigers are burying their dead. Skipping next to the confusion of a refugee camp, we see how a desperate man, woman and an orphan child are randomly put together to act as a sham family so that they can use the passports of dead people and be trafficked to Europe. But instead of England, as they thought, they end up in France, where they know no-one and don’t even speak the language.
Director Jacques Audiard, who gave us A Prophet, Rust and Bone and The Beat That My Heart Skipped shows us the everyday detail of people arriving in a strange country as also strangers to each other, of having to keep up the pretence of being a family, and trying to be invisible so as to fit in and survive. Now having to use the name Dheepan that was on the passport he bought, the former guerilla leader (Jesuthasan Antonythasan, himself a former Tamil Tiger, now an author, whose own life is close to the character he plays) is given a job with accommodation for his ‘family’ as caretaker on a violent, crime-ridden estate of tower blocks, run by drug gangs in the suburbs. The flat they are allocated is virtually derelict when they move in but, although they are all traumatised and disoriented, they try to recreate a kind of normality. Dheepan puts his energy into doing a good job despite the humiliations of his menial status. The ‘daughter’ Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) is enrolled at school and the ‘wife’ Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) is given part-time work cooking and cleaning for an elderly man, Mr Habib (Faouzi Bensaïdi), who lives alone in another block.
When Mr Habib’s relative Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) is released from prison and moves in with him, a gang turf war breaks out. It triggers in Dheepan everything from his former life that he had buried just below the surface. He instinctively reacts to take charge and end the war with even greater – and more professional – violence. The film builds slowly: everything is meaningful. And it’s fascinating to see Europe as outsiders see it, to see how they experience their treatment by Europe and the things they do to fit in and survive in an alien environment. Illayaal asks Yalini to kiss her when she takes her to school so she is like the other mothers. Yalini takes to wearing a headscarf because she sees other women wearing it. Meanwhile, Dheepan builds a shrine to the memory of his real dead wife.
And there’s the uncomfortable central paradox that Dheepan and Yalini find the pervading violence of the lawless estate where they are marooned worse than that of the war-torn country they have fled from. Even in France, there’s no escape from the past – there are other Tamil Tiger illegal immigrants who make demands on Dheepan. Then there’s the building of family relationships. Starting from scratch, the three family members resist at first, but as they all inevitably grow closer, find themselves instinctively replicating the dynamics of a real family. Dheepan and Yalini, unable to leave each other, have to find some way of living together and bringing up Illayaal.
Abruptly and unexpectedly, after the long build-up, the gang wars come to a head and Dheepan becomes an avenging angel in an apocalypse so violent that when the film cuts quickly to the final scene, it could almost be another world or a hallucination. Given the negative image it presents of France, Dheepan was a surprising – if worthy – Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 2015. A film that shocks and whose visual language is so vivid, the images linger long after the credits have rolled.
Dheepan is released on 8th April 2016 in the UK