'Dheepan' Tells A Refugee's Affecting Story, Until It Doesn't The winner of the Palme D'Or at 2015's Cannes Film Festival, director Jacques Audiard's latest begins with a gratifyingly specific story of one man's life, but its trajectory works against it.
NPR logo 'Dheepan' Tells A Refugee's Affecting Story, Until It Doesn't

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'Dheepan' Tells A Refugee's Affecting Story, Until It Doesn't

Kalieaswari Srinivasan (Yalini) and Antonythasan Jesuthasan (Dheepan) at Pole Emploi in Dheepan. Paul Arnaud/Sundance Selects hide caption

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Paul Arnaud/Sundance Selects

Kalieaswari Srinivasan (Yalini) and Antonythasan Jesuthasan (Dheepan) at Pole Emploi in Dheepan.

Paul Arnaud/Sundance Selects

In 2009, French director Jacques Audiard won the Grand Prix (equivalent to second place) at the Cannes Film Festival for A Prophet, a gripping thriller about a 19-year-old Algerian inmate who slowly rises to power in a prison where Muslims and Corsicans are engaged in mob warfare. Chief among the film's many virtues is Audiard's sly narrative strategy: Through the vessel of a tough, violent genre picture, he could smuggle a movie that's really about the difficulty persons of color and cultural disadvantage have in a system that's stacked against them. Come for the edge-of-your-seat gangster movie, stay for an incisive metaphor for the immigrant experience.

Last year, Audiard returned to Cannes with Dheepan and walked away as the surprise winner of top prize, the Palme D'Or, over such vaunted contenders as Carol, Son of Saul, and The Assassin. The film's champions rightly lauded it as a timely drama about the hardships of war refugees in France — and this was in May, before the full impact of the swell of asylum applications from Syrian refugees in Europe and beyond, and all its attendant controversies. Yet Dheepan, in essence, functions like A Prophet in reverse: It's a sober drama about the immigrant experience that smuggles in a bloody drug thriller in the third act. This time, though, it feels like Audiard is sabotaging his own movie.

The connective tissue between the beginning and the end of Dheepan is the violence that drives three Sri Lankans from the present dangers of civil conflict on the island to the urban battlefield of the Paris projects. Loosely inspired by his own experiences as a former child soldier with the Sri Lankan militant group, the Tamil Tigers, the film stars Antonythasan Jesuthasan as Sivadhasan, a rebel forced to flee the country quickly in order to be spared from government retribution. At a refugee camp, he procures a passport for a dead man named Dheepan and is set up with a fake family that includes a wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and a nine-year-old daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby).

The three arrive in Paris as strangers to the country and strangers to each other, unfamiliar with the language and culture, and not eligible to be part of the country's labor force or social protections. Dheepan (who loses his real name indefinitely) is first shown hawking glow-in-the-dark trinkets to tourists for two Euros a pop, but eventually lands a more stable job as caretaker at a condemned housing project. He tries to tend quietly to his responsibilities, but in buildings lorded over by volatile drug dealers, it's only a matter of time before he and his makeshift family start to feel a familiar threat.

Before Dheepan's transformation from downtrodden refugee to angel of vengeance — or maybe his return to old habits, given his warrior past — Audiard and his extraordinary cast are gratifyingly specific in detailing the everyday struggle of refugees living in the shadows. All work is off the books, as is the derelict housing, which surely violates the codes no one cares to expose. Illayaal, a bright and curious girl with an unimaginably painful past, is shuffled into a "special needs" class to learn the language and makes no friends on the playground. For her part, Yalini makes money tending to an elderly man in a neighboring apartment, but inadvertently puts herself and her "family" in a precarious spot.

The relationship between Dheepan and Yalini takes on an unusual, intriguing tenor, because they don't know each other, but they've been thrown into a situation of unusual intimacy and mutual dependency. There are flashes of true romantic feeling that recall Audiard's last film, the underrated Rust and Bone, but just as many instances of distrust and miscommunication, which are a natural byproduct of two strangers thrown into a perilous situation together. They don't make decisions like a true marital unit, and they're constantly at risk of being cleaved by opposing agendas.

Audiard and his co-screenwriters, Noé Debré and Thomas Bidegain, plant the seeds for their hero's chilling transformation back into the soldier of his past, now forced to contend with a different sort of conflict zone. But Dheepan nonetheless feels hijacked by another type of movie toward the end, as if a Dardennes brothers movie like La Promesse had suddenly turned into an actioner like District B13 or The Raid. What started as a piercing drama about refugees, rooted firmly in the ethnic crises that have plagued modern Paris, shifts into a cathartic melee that nearly tips into outright fantasy. One part of the film can't be reconciled with the other.