Fleeing Sri Lanka after his involvement in the atrocities of the civil war, Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) assumes a new identity, taking up residence in a French ghetto and working as the janitor. He is not alone. With him are 26-year-old Yalini (Kalieswari Srinivasan) and 9-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). Though they are complete strangers, they must pose as a family and exist as one; the gangland backdrop a fitting counter to the struggles within their fraudulent household.
Rust And Bone director Jacques Audiard won the coveted Palme D’or at last year’s Cannes film festival for this, his latest film, which has finally arrived on UK shores. It was something of a surprise announcement, with many assuming the prize would fall to either László Nemes’ holocaust drama Son Of Saul or Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s elegant if divisive The Assassin. Watching the film, it’s not hard to see why the result was a bit of a shock. Granted, there is much to admire here, and Audiard builds an admirable amount of empathy for Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal, yet the film as a whole is messy and troubled, hamstrung by a third act that undoes a lot of the meticulous work in the main body of the film.
The title doesn’t give nearly enough credit to Srinivasan’s contribution as Yalini. She is wonderful. This is easily as much her film as it is Antonythasan’s. Yalini gets a job taking care of an ageing man in tower G – an area off-limits to Dheepan due to gangland rivalries. While doing her duties – cooking, cleaning etc – she meets newly freed thug Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), instigator of many of the tensions between the high-rises. Yet their tentative friendship is one of the great surprises in the film; painting Brahim as a person and not just a villain, and allowing Yalini an outlet for her woes. Charmingly, they can’t even understand one another.
Dheepan, meanwhile, is something of a closed book. Evidently wrestling with the violent deeds he was a part of back in Sri Lanka, Dheepan attempts to construct a new identity for himself; first by burying himself in his work and then, as their familiarity deepens, by defining himself as the husband in a family unit. This brings us to perhaps the most fascinating area of the film.
Dheepan boils down to a kitchen sink drama with none of the assumed emotional investment between its characters. These three are posing as a family. There is no connection between them. It adds an intriguing tension to their dynamic. Yalini refuses to behave like a mother and is wholly prepared to walk out on her ‘responsiblity’ to Illayaal at any moment. Dheepan, meanwhile, clearly wishes for their assumed roles to become a reality in order to give his new life shape and meaning, but he grows frustrated that his will and supposed dominance as a male figure do not grant him defacto respect.
It’s fascinating to watch a family dynamic that is anything but familiar. And as an audience member, it’s all too easy to will a positive outcome for these three. Whenever Audiard moves the story in that direction, it pays feel-good dividends, the high-water mark of these being a multicultural family picnic in the sun; an idyllic scene in the middle of the film that you almost wish were the movie’s last.
But this is Audiard, so pain and suffering must have their share, and Dheepan stumbles considerably as the gangland background becomes foreground. It worked nicely as a metaphor for both the tensions between the central characters and as an echo of the world they are trying to escape from; as a part of the main narrative, it feels awkward and offbeat with the rest of the film.
Dheepan at first tries admirably to broker some sort of truce, but ultimately the film spills into the kind of violence that was far more interesting when it was merely threatened. While technically impressive, a lingering sequence in which Dheepan ascends a smoky stairwell fending off attackers is sadly more memorable as a metaphor for how clouded the film has become by this point. Set beside the more human drama of the first two-thirds, these Rambo antics go against the tone of the whole and lessen its overall impact. The film achieves less because of them. Similarly the film’s final scene feels like a rather cheesy post-script after such a nuanced, thoughtful set-up.
It’s a shame, because for a while here Audiard is onto a very good thing. Antonythasan, Vinasithamby and particularly Srinivasan are great in their roles, while visually the film far outstrips expectations of what a ghetto drama might ordinarily aspire to. Even the costuming works as a measure of how well – or not – these characters are assimilating into their surroundings. And could a film about the daunting prospect of having to migrate come at a more important time? All of this good just about outweighs the bad. Yet still it’s hard to get over the disappointment at how far off the rails Dheepan ultimately wanders.