Review: Palme d’Or-winning ‘Dheepan’ spins a gritty immigrant saga


The films of the French director Jacques Audiard roil with tension of every kind: political, ethnic, dramatic, aesthetic. He is a master of screen violence, someone who knows how to orchestrate action and mayhem for maximum stylistic flair and visceral impact. He is also a sharp and sensitive observer of race- and class-based malaise in his home country, as in “A Prophet,” his galvanizing 2010 thriller about a French Arab outcast who morphs into a crime lord behind bars.

At times, however, the tension in an Audiard film arises from its own internal contradictions. Both “A Prophet” and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” his skillful remake of James Toback’s “Fingers,” sought to capture the audience’s sympathy for a brooding young sociopath, and they succeeded largely on the basis of their actors’ remarkable charisma. “Rust and Bone,” the boxing melodrama that Audiard made after “A Prophet,” seemed to draw much of its bruising power from the contrast between the raw anguish of its lead performances and the blatancy of its narrative manipulations.

A social realist with the shrewd instincts of an old-fashioned entertainer, Audiard is well aware of the interplay of authenticity and artifice that drives much of his work; he hails from that school of filmmakers who know that a spoonful of sweat and adrenaline can help the medicine go down. Which brings us in a roundabout fashion to his latest movie, “Dheepan,” an often gripping but finally faltering drama about three Sri Lankan refugees who move into a gritty Paris banlieue, or suburb, and soon find that they’ve merely abandoned one circle of hell for another.

You may have heard something about “Dheepan” from last May’s Cannes Film Festival, where it surprised a number of critics, this one included, by winning the Palme d’Or. Like most new works that premiere in the insta-reaction hothouse of Cannes, Audiard’s movie certainly warranted a second, less-distracted viewing after all the fuss and fanfare subsided. That only became truer in the months that followed, as the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels and the vast and ongoing upheaval of the European migrant crisis have served to only deepen the uneasy topical resonance surrounding the film and its tale of desperate sojourners struggling to survive in a strange land.


Even within that heavily freighted context, the movie plays much as it did then: unfailingly relevant, skillfully acted and at its best in its more soulful, humorous interludes. Granted, such interludes are few and far between for the man we come to know as Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), a Tamil fighter who, having lost his family and a good chunk of his soul in the Sri Lankan civil war, opts to leave his conflict-ridden homeland and begin a new life in France. Borrowing his new name and identity from a dead man, Dheepan makes the boat journey with two other migrants passing themselves off as his wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and his pre-adolescent daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). We never learn either woman’s real name.

When the film catches up with Dheepan next, signaling his change of circumstances with a marvelously disorienting passage of pure cinema, he’s selling cheap baubles on the streets of Paris and sharing a cramped flat with Yalini and Illayaal. Step by step, they make efforts to remedy their difficult situation, though the screenplay (written by Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré) dutifully matches every advance with a setback.

Illayaal enrolls in school but has trouble fitting in, and she begins to act up accordingly. The three move into a larger apartment in a high-rise housing project in Le Pré Saint-Gervais (located in Paris’ northeastern suburbs), where Dheepan works as a caretaker, cleaning up after the gangs that occupy the building. If that situation is clearly a powder keg waiting to ignite, then so, to a lesser degree, is Yalini’s new job looking after a disabled man whose nephew, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), is active among the criminal factions that hold sway here. Meanwhile, Yalini longs to leave for more hospitable climes in Britain and occasionally threatens to abandon the others and go her own way.

“Dheepan” is at its best when it probes this tricky emotional triangle, from the erotically charged glances that occasionally pass between Dheepan and Yalini to the surrogate mother-daughter angst that flares between Yalini and Illayaal. It may be in everyone’s best interest to work together and maintain the illusion of family, but the movie is for the most part scrupulously unsentimental in showing how a common goal is no replacement, and perhaps not even a foundation, for authentic love.

Scene by scene, there’s a leanness and economy to Audiard’s filmmaking that gradually shifts, via dreamlike ellipses and temporal blurs, into a poetically heightened register. The mystery of Dheepan’s damaged identity — we don’t know the troubles he’s seen, though we have a good sense of how they might spur him to act — becomes the movie’s dramatic fulcrum, and Jesuthasan (himself a former child soldier for the militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) exudes a natural, rough-hewn star wattage in the role. Srinivasan is no less impressive as a woman who, though not included in the title, brings her own compelling emotional force to the movie’s intense endgame.

The climactic action is orchestrated with a lyrical restraint that scrupulously avoids turning Dheepan’s acts of bloodshed into easy audience payoffs. But not even the finesse of Audiard’s staging and framing can stave off the feeling that “Dheepan,” in suddenly morphing into a sort of arthouse “Death Wish,” has tacked on a generic B-movie resolution in lieu of a deeper, more incisive examination of its milieu. And the nagging lack of specificity with which the film concludes can’t help but call its entire dramatic construction into question.


In juxtaposing the horrors of civil war and the perils of banlieue life, is Audiard forging an empathetic metaphor or lapsing into a false and reductive equivalency? Is the unexpectedly idyllic closing scene meant to be taken at face value or as a bitter fantasy vision of what might have been? Perhaps it is the fulfillment of a spiritual thread that has been running through the course of the movie’s busy narrative: a scene of Yalini praying to the Hindu god Ganesh, echoed by Dheepan’s visions of an elephant in a homeland he still longs for. In these moments Audiard affirms his characters’ faith as a sustaining force, even if “Dheepan” itself compels something less than total belief.



MPAA rating: R for violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Playing: In limited release