Dir/Wri: Jacques Audiard
Starring: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Srinavasan Kalieaswan, Claudine Vinaisithamby
Released: 13th May 2016
Every once in a while, a film comes along that reflects current topic, teaches you about a world that’s far from yours and ultimately tells a story, because let’s face it, a story is what we came for. Dheepan – though this isn’t his name when we first meet him – does exactly that.
We are initially introduced to him as a Tamil Tiger fighting for freedom in Sri Lanka during the Civil War. Burying his fellow fighters beneath the leaves of Palm trees and in the midst of a heavy defeat, he decides his only option is to flee West. Thus, a refugee is born.
Alas, the journey to freedom never did run smooth and in order to make his asylum application stronger, he creates a makeshift family with pseudo wife and daughter, Yalini, and nine year old Illayaan. Together, the three strangers embark upon a voyage and although Yalini is eager to end up in England where she has a cousin, they find themselves in France. There, they begin by living in various temporary accommodation before Dheepan – the name on his fake passport – finds a job as a caretaker of high rise flats in a rough, crime-filled and economically deprived area on the outskirts of Paris.
From the man who brought us Rust and Bone, we expect Jacques Audiard to convey a meaningful and real tale full of character, and it is perhaps during the middle of the film where much of this occurs. We are anxious as we follow each member through their own private journey and also the journey they embark upon together, as a family. We feel sorry for Illayan, taken from her home to live with complete strangers, in a country far removed from her young reality. We marvel at the lack of maternal instinct in Yalini and desperately want her to embrace the child and show us that, even though she is but a child herself, underneath it all, she really can be a mother. We flinch at the dismal skies of France that are in stark contrast to the early colours of Sri Lanka and it is here that the viewer would be forgiven for momentarily wondering why they left.
Dheepan’s hard-working ethos is evident as he tries his best to clean the flats and the mess left behind by dope dealers and smokers in the flats’ organised crime scene. We see them eventually adopt him as a distant friend, choosing when to extend kindness to him and his family. One of the gang members, Brahim, soon hires Dheepan’s ‘wife’, Yalini, to cook and clean for his disabled father, Mr.Habibi. The scenes that take place in his flat capture, with delicate insight, the way in which motiveless friendships are born. Here we are witness to a Sri Lankan refugee and a French hoodlum; they don’t speak the same language and nor do they have anything in common, yet they find a ground solid enough to laugh and talk away the difficult and often static moments of their lives. Audiard shows us a human aspect to Brahim; a man who although can kill, can also sit and watch television as well as compliment a young woman on her cooking.
Whilst this is a French film, almost every word is spoken in Tamil and the main character who plays Dheepan, is non-professional actor, Antonythasan Jesuthasan. Although given his performance, he will likely grace many more screens to come. Jesuthasan was a former child soldier and a Tamil Freedom Fighter during the civil war that occurred between 1983 and 2009 and he also is a passionate writer on the liberation of Tamil people. These facts add generously to the authenticity of Audiard’s patchwork of immigrant life, proving that art exists because life did first.
With one particular scene, after Dheepan has been berated and beaten by a former freedom fighter for refusing to return to Sri Lanka, he can be seen singing a Tamil fight song, in full flow, almost oblivious to the camera, the viewer, or indeed himself and it is this scene that punctuates the onset of the ensuing action.
The steadiness of the first two thirds soon make way as Dheepan’s frustrations at their home life deepen. He grows tired of the gangs, of the unpredictability of the members and the way they tolerate him entirely on their terms. He begins to believe that these women are his real family – perhaps to make up for the family that he loved, and subsequently saw killed in Sri Lanka. And so his war instinct, which up until that point has laid dormant throughout the entire film, wakes up to avenge the injustice of war and innocent deaths. Whilst this latter part of the film can somewhat feel like a more profound version of a weak gangster movie, the charm and genuineness of the characters remain true throughout the film.
In the end, this Palme d’or winner’s powerful vignettes of war tell not only a story, but also grant a new identity to refugees; as the credits roll, we know that they are not just a nameless group of people that float in anonymity. They are people who come in fear, who work, who learn a language, who are stared at when they walk the streets and battle with an internal war every day. We also learn that family can sometimes be nurtured and eventually grow, that children can be the teachers of adults, that human touch is the most efficient therapy and that sometimes, once war seeps into your bones, it never leaves.
Written by Maria Costa