As Europe struggles to stem the floodtide of refugees crossing its borders, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan is a grim reminder of the conditions faced by many who successfully make the transition to a new country. It was a controversial choice for this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the announcement was booed by some members of the audience at the closing ceremony. But whether or not Audiard’s film deserved the Festival’s top prize, there’s no denying the power and heartfelt emotion behind this tale of a Sri Lankan ex-Tamil rebel and his battle to put his former life behind him, but who effectively swaps the leafy, jungle of his native Sri Lanka for the urban jungle of the Parisian suburbs.
After fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka, Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), is given refugee status in France with the woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a young girl Ilayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) who are pretending to be his wife and daughter. Forced to live on a dangerous housing estate ruled by local drug dealers, the three strangers try to build a new life together.
It’s a tribute to Audiard’s talent for storytelling and the richness of his narratives that several characters in Dheepan are worthy of a film in their own right. Both the ‘wife’ and ‘daughter’ have their own story to tell. As do numerous other characters who populate the housing ghetto on the edge of Paris. And Audiard also examines from a very individual standpoint the problem of how to treat refugees who arrive in France with little education, no ability to understand or speak French and no obvious marketable skills. Dheepan is given a sordid apartment on a dangerous estate and the thankless job as cleaner of its dilapidated, vandalised tower blocks. It’s not so much as welcome as a baptism of fire and a moving testimony to the tenacity and will to survive of refugees like Dheepan,
The film is carried by the central performance of non-professional actor Antonythasan. Like his character, he fought for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and was jailed in numerous countries before seeking asylum in France in 1997, aged 25. His only prior acting experience was writing and starring in Sengadal (The Dead Sea), which was banned in India. He is admirably matched by Srinivasan as his wife and their ‘will they, won’t they’ relationship is essential to the emotional core of the film. Less satisfying are the final 10 minutes of the film which see a complete change of mood at odds with the personal tone of previous scenes. And the ending is far too neat and simplistic to round off this horrifying tale of three individuals seeking to make a better future for themselves.