Here’s a scene that most of us can identify with, in one role or another: A mother and father drop their child off for her first day at a new school. The young girl, unused to being separated from her parents for very long, panics and tearfully runs after them as they try to depart. Except in this latest kitchen-sink drama from award-winning French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, the family are refugees from civil war-torn Sri Lanka, foreigners in a foreign land. The crying 9-year-old clinging to her 35-year-old father’s waist is Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby); he is Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), and his 24-year-old wife is Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). Dheepan explains to Illayaal in their native Tamil tongue that as adults, he and Yalini will have to work to support her, and she’ll need to attend this public school in France to help them all try to assimilate the language of the country that’s granted them asylum. If only it were that simple.
During the opening moments of Audiard’s Dheepan (surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at 2015’s Cannes Film Festival), we’re shown that Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal aren’t a family at all. In fact, these aren’t even their names, or possibly even their ages. Before assuming the identity of a man who died six months earlier, Dheepan was Sivadhasan, a Tamil Tiger fighting a losing battle for the freedom of his country. When this soldier’s actual family was killed in the conflict, he’d had enough. Determined to flee his home and begin a new life in France, “Dheepan” needs to complete the charade dictated by his false passport by taking on not only a “wife,” but a “daughter”—the better to gain asylum in Europe. We learn even less about “Yalini” and the orphaned “Illayaal,” but for the fact that none of them knew one another before embarking on their journey.
Things don’t go easily for this “family.” Although the French government is sympathetic to the trio’s plight, Dheepan initially has to make do by hawking cheap toys to tourists without a license, frantically running from police at a moment’s notice. “I can’t stand this,” he mutters to himself, barely catching his breath after his latest near-escape from the law. (An actual Tiger in his youth, Jesuthasan went through much of what Dheepan endures during his emigration; details from his life were incorporated into the spare script by Noé Debré, Thomas Bidegain and Audiard.) Eventually, Dheepan becomes a maintenance man in a housing project where they’re also tenants. Before long, Yalini is offered a job as caretaker for Monsieur Habib (Faouzi Bensaïdi), an elderly invalid who lives on an upper floor of the drug- riddled “banlieue.”
Ah yes, drugs. This provisional family may have escaped one war zone, but they’ve ended up in another. Audiard gives us a slow drip of information, seen through the eyes of our leads, who understand little of what’s going on around them. And while Dheepan chooses to look away, Yalini can’t, especially once Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) returns to the apartment occupied by Monsieur Habib. She understands little of what this hardened young man says to her (though she quickly realizes how much he enjoys her cooking), and she’s equally perplexed by the electronic bracelet he wears on his ankle. As we discover, Brahim has just been released from prison, and he’s commanding the respect of the baseball bat-wielding and—increasingly—gun-toting goons who surround the slum.
In some regards, you get the sense that Brahim is a character not unlike Malik El Djebena, the young Arab who calcifies into a kingpin during a stay in the slammer in Audiard’s arresting Oscar-nominated drama, Un Prophète. With Dheepan, however, Audiard seems determined to give us a reversal of his 2009 film’s premise. While the former Sivadhasan began the film as a hardened killer, once he begins his new life, he attempts to walk a path of pacifism; not only that, but this walking ghost who’s lost one family gradually begins to awaken, fondly looking upon the makeshift clan he’s fallen in with. Audiard’s message seems to be that family is what you make of it—a truth that sits better with Illayaal than with Yalini, who struggles in her new maternal role. While the two female characters form a tentative truce, Dheepan gains the respect not only of the residents he serves, but also of the thugs who keep increasing in numbers.
It’s only a matter of time before the delicate peace is shattered when a rival gang shows up, drawing Dheepan into a conflict that ultimately finds him claiming his role as husband and protector as his world explodes once again into violence. If you’re familiar with Audiard’s work, you won’t be surprised to find that he continues to treat his flawed protagonists as humans, rather than simple villains, no matter what secrets they hold—or how impressively he cranks up the carnage. As Dheepan’s past deeds come back to haunt him, Audiard still manages to find the goodness in this tormented soul, a man who dreams of the past while living for the future—not only for himself, but for his newfound family.
Dheepan *** 1/2
Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Faouzi Bensaïdi and Marc Zinga, Vasanth Selvam and Vincent Rottiers. Written by Noé Debré, Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audiard. Directed by Jacques Audiard. At Kendall Square.