This year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema has featured some of the most diverse films coming out of France and it’s hit two home runs by bringing to US audiences the Cesar Award winner for Best Picture, Fatima, and Dheepan, the Palm D’Or winner at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, both which I saw back to back at the Walter Reade. Thematically, both are strikingly similar films dealing with the issue of cultural differences and a language barrier that immigrants experience when coming into France. However, those similarities end there: while Fatima grapples with a less than veiled racism and two conflicted daughters. Dheepan contains elements of the mythical warrior pushed to his limits.
Having lost everything to war, Sivadhassan, a Sri Lankan soldier, Yalini, a young woman on the verge of womanhood, and an orphaned young girl, Illayaal, procure false IDs to leave Sri Lanka for a better life. In a striking, near wordless montage, Dheepan (as Sivadhasaan is now known) walks the streets of Paris covered in cheap glow lights trying to sell them to anyone who will buy for pennies. When Immigration reels him (and the other two) in, a sympathetic Sri Lankan translator helps his case out, grants the three of them temp visas, and relocates them to the Parisian projects where they can start anew.
The problem is that these like your typical projects are rife with drug dealing and with that vicious shoot-outs. Dheepan gets work as a caretaker, Yalini lands a job taking care of a largely mute older man (which comes with its own set of complications), and Illayaal attends school for kids with special needs, which in Paris is aimed at children who cannot speak the language but nevertheless need education.
For a while, everything is going well except for a couple minor ruffles: Illayaal getting into a school brawl over being rejected at recess and Yalini confusing the mail is the worst of their problems. Relations are at a rocky, unstable start — Yalini would rather continue to London and leave Dheepan and Illayaal behind. However, a gradual sense of comfort starts to come into the picture and it’s not long when the three of them have formed a new sense of family, and Dheepan has begun to fall a little for Yalini.
Just outside the picture, another drama is about to explode. Brahim, a drug-dealer and leader of a vicious gang often visits the man Yalini is taking care of, and while there is a certain, tentative attraction between the two, that comes to a crashing halt one day when a shoot-out takes place and almost hits Yalini and Illayaal on the way home from school. It proves to be a little too much for her to bear, because didn’t she leave a war-ravaged country already?
This is where the second half of Dheepan smashes this false sense of security: as he was considering an engagement ring to make his life with Yalini legal, she’s panicked and taken off. At about the same time a character from his past, another Sri Lankan soldier, wants his help in the war, but Dheepan has moved on and is on another plane. These two events rip the ground off his feet and define the more violent second half, where Brahim’s own out of control violence will intersect with Dheepan’s self-contained warrior. Director Jacques Audiard ratches up the tension as rival gangs threaten not just themselves but Dheepan himself, and at times the ferocity of how characters clash seems out of context with the slow buildup that has preceeded, but seems fitting due to the story’s location.
Dheepan is carried out almost entirely by newcomer Jesusthasan Anthonythasan who plays a character not too dissimilar from his life as a child soldier in Sri Lanka. From the first scene to the last, he is the one character your attention focuses on, going through the motions of tragedy of a past he can’t go back to, to the insecurity of the future, to the anguish of having to dig back into his past to make sure that future, faint at first but burgeoning, doesn’t die before it has a chance. Equally as good are the newcomes playing Yalini and Illayaal and Vincent Rottiers as Brahim, a bad guy who has a soft spot for Yalini.
Human survival gets tested all the way in this often touching, but never over-dramatic film. I highly recommend it.
Dheepan will be released May 13 in US theaters.