I was first introduced to the filmmaker Jacques Audiard with the intense crime opus A Prophet. That film was easily one of the greatest crime dramas this side of The Godfather, it followed a Muslim teen sent to prison who rises in the world of France’s organized crime both as a matter of necessity and in order to better his lot in life. I’m here to tell you that while Dheepan is not a step forward for Audiard, the film nonetheless represents everything that makes him one of the truly exciting voices in contemporary cinema. Like that 2009 feature (which was France’s entry into the Academy Awards at the time) Dheepan is harrowing saga about people who go through tremendous suffering on their way to freedom in a country that isn’t their own.
From the ashes of the Sri Lankan Civil War, three passports were salvaged from the dead, allowing three lucky people the opportunity for a new life in another country. A Tamil soldier, Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) poses as the man, a young unnamed woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) leaps at the opportunity to pose as his wife, Yalini and finally, the newly forged couple of convenience snatch an unattended orphan whose new name will be Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). After this trio of strangers make it to France, Sivadhasan starts hustling trinkets to tourists in order to feed his “family” and secure temporary visas, and hand a home in the Le Pre-Saint-Gervais housing block. The landlord leaves the newest tenants with a warning: pay no attention to the drug wars in the building across the street. Despite the expected hardships, the prospect of new and better lives is within the grasp of these people, even if they’re ones that never belonged to them.
Dheepan is ultimately about the cycles of re-invention. Each of our characters carries withing them a past that they’d rather leave behind and beyond that there’s the identity they must perform in order to get through the day in France. Audiard’s films are structured like a divine purification ritual. His leads find a cleansing of their souls by the hell of the prison heirarchy (A Prophet) or the pain of physical trauma (Rust & Bone) all to emerge renewed and enlightened. Dheepanmay be more of the same but this time Audiard never lets the internal and external hells the lead character carries within stay as it is. Unfolding more like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and less like a typical immigrant fable, we bear witness to Sivadhasan and his surrogate family begin the experience a blurring between who they were and their roles. After all, you can only play make believe for so long before you begin to actually.
The lead performance truly carries the movie and it is interesting to know that Jesuthasan was only been in one film before Dheepan. Seeing Sivadhasan slowly allow himself to become Dheepan you almost get the sense that Jesuthasan is losing himself to the role(s) as well. once had to when he arrived in France, you can almost feel the actor retracing his steps. Cinematographer Eponine Momenceau’s provides crisp work that imbues the film with a stoicism that has the visceral effect of showing how Sivadhasan and his family are finding their footing through a growing sense of contentment. As they grow more comfortable with their new lives and adopted country, the visuals take a more humane glow to it. As the cast see each other as more than accessories the film starts to be shot less like a survival story and more of a family film. And even when Yalini is sidetracked by one of the most powerful members of the housing block’s drug cartel, her scenes with Sivadhasan use the film grammar of a romance story. Tragically, the movie falls into familiar tropes despite the marvelous transformation and transitions Audiard made prior. One of those “the moment our heroes close the doors on the past is the moment that it comes knocking.”It’s also the moment where Dheepan drops.
Much of Audiard’s poeticism ends up feeling unusually more like texture than text and as if he lost his confidence in the measures he was taking prior to allow the film a truly organic unfolding, Audiard rushes the catharsis. And yet there is a real thrill to seeing a good man doing his best to one who explodes into full-on Rambo ferocity. And yet that abrupt left field development never really feels earned or conducive to the rest of the narrative. Like the lead characters, Dheepan still manages to recover from the damage that has been done. And in the end this is a powerful movie about people searching for a fresh start made by a filmmaker who, though he’s perfected the path he’s chosen, may need one of his own.