Directed by Jacques Audiard
From the opening scene, we are presented with a strong image; we cant make out many words, but we see men hurrying to throw kindling onto a huge bonfire that also contains dead bodies. The nonchalant way they go about it is chilling, and these are comrades of Dheepan, fellow Tamil Tigers – I don’t blame him for trying to escape the country. This entire situation of course is mirrored by modern society, as it seems most western countries have their own immigration problems, many exacerbated by civil wars like the Sri Lankan Civil War depicted here briefly, which to my surprise (and horror) had raged for 25 years and only ended in 2009. The conflict Dheepan flees is emblematic of all who struggle to immigrate. This however isn’t a typical, happy-go lucky-immigration story.
Dheepan’s (a dead man’s name whose passport he uses to get political asylum) family was killed in the civil war, and to leave Sri Lanka he needs a convincing cover story. He needs to look like a regular citizen with a typical family, lest they find out his political leanings. Enter two complete strangers, a woman to be his wife – Yalina – and a 9 year girl – Illayaal, another stranger. They both comply because it could guarantee them passage out of the country/refugee camp. When the three arrive in France however, they find settling in is rather hard. There are numerous reasons for this, some obvious, such as racism, bullying, and to begin with, language barriers. However this film is called Dheepan, and this is predominantly his story.
Dheepan soon finds a unit building, where he is to be the caretaker while his family can live there too. He routinely ignores the insults of those living near him, and when he starts he is expressly told by his boss not to venture across a no-mans land of sorts; there are two unit-buildings that seem separated by gang warfare. There are many of these seedy men in Dheepan’s unit-block, but as a cleaner his wife Yalina is forced to interact with them, with varying results.
A fighter for the rebel forces in India, and often considered terrorists, Dheepan, like so many affected by war, is scarred mentally. With her limited French, his wife is able to describe the experience as disturbing him, and we see this periodically when he has episodes of dangerous attention seeking within the gang-filled unit-blocks. Dheepan seems to have left one war behind while entering into another.
We get to know his wife somewhat as she takes a job looking after an elderly man, and we see the sort of gentle person she is. Beyond this though she is a 2D character, much like their daughter, though we do get to know her piece by piece as her French becomes better and she increasingly is needed to translate.
The final act of the film is great, I had no idea what was going to happen next as Dheepan is such a fascinating character. He can be loving but also cruel, he is determined, and is also very spontaneous. He eventually begins to take exception to the racist bullying and acts in ways that you would not expect, nor do the rest of the people living there. With the gangs that hang around the units constantly, and no police help whatsoever (apparently places like this do exist), Dheepan is forced to act. But after everything he has already done, what can he do next?
Now it may seem like I loved every moment of this film, but I did have a couple of problems with it. It felt very episodic, there were many times where I wasn’t sure what was happening, though this could be my own fault. However I am going to blame the editing, the plot felt very jumpy and events didn’t seem to flow in a natural order. But really it is hard to pick holes in this, it is wonderfully acted and kudos to the writers for showing what it can really be like to immigrate.
So I disagree a tad with the fine folks at Cannes, though I do believe this is a movie worth watching, if just for its relevance to our society right now, especially after the horrendous attacks on Paris. Dheepan is also a fascinating character study; I enjoyed getting to know him despite his many flaws. Whether he is acting out against what his caretaker role includes, or treating his ‘family’ in various ways, from horrid to tender, he is a character that is worthy of the title. No other character may as be developed, but Dheepan is one interesting man, with a long and battle-scarred past.
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