“Be nice. That’s all.”
It was a surprise when Palme d’Or winner Dheepan wasn’t chosen as France’s Oscar pick for the 2016 Academy Awards (interestingly enough the country selected Mustang, another film whose main language isn’t French). Even more surprising is how long it’s taken to open stateside as ten months sit between its debuts in Paris and New York. I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a shock considering many Americans will want nothing to do with a Tamil movie starring Sri Lankans, but that’s their loss considering writer/director Jacques Audiard has once again crafted a stirring gem possessed by as much emotion as suspense. Never one to shy from difficult subject matter or flawed characters, his latest depicts humanity’s strength to survive and be reborn.
At its center is one of the Tamil Tigers’ most formidable warriors, Dheepan (played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, a former Tamil child soldier himself from age 16 to 19 who’s stated the role is more or less fifty percent autobiographical). Thought to have been beheaded by the opposition once the civil war ended, he’s able to escape to France on a fake passport thanks to the help of two strangers: Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The former poses as his wife and the latter their daughter (despite actually being the orphan of yet another complete stranger), their ruse a necessity to leave Sri Lanka and potential death behind. Not only must they now learn to adapt to a new culture, they must also adapt to each other.
Some great drama is born of these unfathomable circumstances. The three have no one, their families all having died during the war or beforehand. They can’t go their separate ways either since their refugee status hinges on remaining a unit. At first relationships are strained, but things gradually thaw to the point where Dheepan begins to dream this sham might one day become reality. It’s a naïve thought, but a hopeful one nonetheless. They start earning more money than they ever fathomed, Illayaal works hard at school to learn French, and a spark of romance emerges to solidify the trio’s familial bond. What was believed to be a peaceful life, however, quickly evaporates into a drug turf war. Just like back home, they are caught in the crossfire.
It’s no big reveal to say the tenuousness of their situation eventually explodes since things are tense upon arrival. Dheepan lucks into a job as caretaker for an apartment complex that happens to double as the meeting ground for dealer Brahim’s (Vincent Rottiers) crew. The immigrant is allowed to clean buildings A-D whenever he likes, but E-H are off-limits until a specific daily window provides them a respite from crime. Local Youssouf (Marc Zinga) does his best to explain the rules and Dheepan follows them without question. Yalini even begins cooking and cleaning for a tenant at ground zero, a mild friendship budding between herself and Brahim, who uses the apartment as his office. But soon the gun blast shaking their world to its core blares.
For the duration we hear about Dheepan’s stature in the Tigers but see nothing except a glimpse in fatigues at a cremation ceremony before shedding that skin. His real name conjures whispers from a Sri Lankan social worker, his past something to be feared. But it’s all behind him now; the fight lost. Life in France suits him if only because it’s calm—a relative term since thugs peddling narcotics loiter out his window. Those acts of violence have been pushed aside so love can once more replace them in his heart. Unfortunately the Tigers aren’t quite done with Dheepan and, despite his disinterest in going back, a floodgate of memories is opened. Anger rises, hopelessness grows, and this idyllic fantasy risks evaporating before it ever truly begins.
Antonythasan is fantastic in the titular role, his stoicism hiding a ferocious mindset we can only imagine. He’s the one trying to keep this “family” together, his former life serving as an example for what it means to be depended upon. And when things start to fall apart he does so as well. The lie hides more than his identity to the world; it hides who he is from himself. That life permeates back with war songs, photographs, and former soldiers. Desperation replaces indifference, this “easy” existence proving harder than he can handle once he discovers that Yalini may not want to stay. The quiet caretaker morphs overnight into an unhinged force of nature, setting ultimatums he knows he can enforce while his enemies laugh, ignorant of his power.
Srinivasan is just as good. Her state of being is like Dheepan’s in reverse—leaving the life she knew behind simply because of her culture in order to languish in a country she didn’t choose with people she doesn’t know. She’s frustrated from the start, with no affinity towards either of her traveling companions. The fact that Illayaal is a nine-year old girl without parents means nothing to her. Yalini would leave the child in a heartbeat if it meant personal safety and, even when their bond makes life look normal, it takes but one frightful development to re-embrace that fight-or-flight mentality. If she can leave, she won’t have to feel anything for Dheepan and Illayaal’s fate. And if she admits those feelings, leaving won’t be an option.
We finally get to see Dheepan in his homicidal element during a rousing climax shot askew through a smoky haze to ramp up the danger. But despite its intensity and action, it’s not merely the sum of its parts. Instead, this sequence is a culmination of emotions with everything previous proving of equal value to their creation. There are many points of progression and evolution for all involved; moments when the line between reality and fantasy blur. Audiard and his co-writers have crafted a tale showing the world its heinousness alongside the light that somehow finds a way to shine through. Dheepan became a monster at war for a purpose. He killed because he felt he must and he will continue to fight until achieving freedom or death.
Rating: R | Runtime: 115 minutes | Release Date: August 25th, 2015 (France)
Studio: UGC Distribution / Sundance Selects
Director(s): Jacques Audiard
Writer(s): Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré