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Expressive strains of spirituality in the face of austere reality float through Dheepan. One character prays to the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom, success and good fortune, Ganesh, while the troubled sleep of another is interrupted by visions of the jungle, where the soulful eyes of an actual elephant appear to offer him what could be pity, judgment or comfort. Jacques Audiard‘s seventh feature brings something new to the Paris banlieue drama, portraying the experience of an improvised family from Sri Lanka who escape civil war to find themselves again enmeshed in violent conflict.
Acquired by IFC/Sundance Selects for the U.S., the film doesn’t have the narrative complexity of A Prophet or the fierce emotional pull of Rust and Bone, to compare it with the French director’s most recent work. The new film is more modest in scale, featuring an unknown cast. But there’s transfixing command to the storytelling, which keeps the audience in the same state of partial understanding experienced by the main characters, with their limited grasp of language. It shows Audiard once again drawn to resilient people in punishing situations, and its arc from the opening images of death to its final notes of hope and wholeness is quite moving.
Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is first seen among other Tamil freedom fighters laying dry palm leaves across the corpses on a funeral pyre before burning his own military fatigues. Audiard then cuts to Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young woman urgently searching a crowded tent settlement for an orphaned child. She finds a girl who can pass for nine, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), and takes her to where Dheepan, whom Yalini has just met, is being given the passports of three dead people, along with minimal instructions for the insta-family on how to assume their new identities.
Another quick cut reveals Dheepan selling novelty gadgets on the Paris streets at night; the entire process of cultural transplantation sketched in a matter of minutes.
With the aid of an interpreter who invents their unconvincing story on the spot, Dheepan and Yalini pass a social services interview and secure employment as caretakers of a shabby multi-block housing project on the city outskirts. The local liaison, Youssouf (Marc Zinga), shows them the ropes in a quick tour with accompanying explanations in French, of which they understand almost nothing. He is evasive about the thuggish drug dealers hanging out in the block opposite where they’ll be living, telling Dheepan only to wait until they leave the premises each morning to clean.
Illayaal is placed in a special needs class at school, along with other immigrant children still learning French. She’s unhappy at first, reacting with hostility when girls on the playground exclude her from their games. But she adjusts more easily than the adults.
Barely more than a kid herself, Yalini is unprepared to be neither a wife nor a mother. She’s sullen and withdrawn, threatening to dump Illayaal on Dheepan and take off to join her cousin in London. But Dheepan persuades her to stay. She is assigned to cook and clean for an infirm old man whose nephew Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) is a top dog in the resident gang. She remains wary of him, but their tentative communication at least offers her some kind of connection.
Audiard and his regular co-writer Thomas Bidegain, working with Noé Debré, observe with humanistic compassion the strangeness of three people who know nothing about one another being thrust into close cohabitation and further isolated by an alien environment. The small signs of a rapport being formed — a moment of tenderness from “father” to “daughter,” “husband” sneaking furtive looks of desire at his “wife,” her amusement at his difficulties comprehending the French sense of humor — are understated, sweet and never sentimental. A sorrowful, silent man whose losses we learn about only in the briefest mentions, Dheepan adapts to the role of family figurehead in ways conveyed with gentle restraint. And a few beautiful private moments indicate the yearning he still feels for his lost homeland.
The evidence of simmering menace is present throughout though kept mostly quiet, amplified only toward the end. At first, Dheepan and Yalini stand at their window watching the late-night comings and goings of the gang across the courtyard as if it’s some kind of televised entertainment.
When violence does intrude, initially it’s not from the neighbors, but from a Tamil Tiger contact trying to pull Dheepan back in. However, friction among the locals inevitably does erupt, almost catching Yalini and Illayaal in the crossfire. This causes Dheepan, quite literally, to draw boundaries, painting a white line across the middle of the communal yard space and declaring his side a “no fire zone.” But of course the demarcation doesn’t hold.
Unlike in A Prophet, where the brutality was viciously detailed, orchestrated both with chilling control and unblinking focus, it explodes here as a chaotic, almost lyrical trance. We witness the calm skill for killing and maiming that Dheepan no doubt acquired during his youth as a soldier conscripted into a bloody conflict. But Audiard seems more interested in the character’s instinctual response as a man unaccustomed to having something personal to protect. Much of the violence is glimpsed only in hazy fragments, so it’s the emotional stakes etched into the fully lived-in performances that make the climactic action so riveting. (The lead actor is a published author, essayist and activist who himself escaped from a past as a boy soldier until age 19 with the Tamil Tigers.)
While the unhurried pace is challenging for a film with relatively little narrative incident, it’s a pleasure to put yourself in the hands of such a confident director. Audiard teams with new collaborators here in cinematographer Eponine Momenceau and composer Nicolas Jaar, and Dheepan immerses us via image and sound in a compelling world. The visuals have texture and fluidity, and the cool electronica score is aptly enhanced by South Asian sounds early on. The film reportedly was completed just in time for inclusion in the Cannes competition, screening with what appeared to be incomplete end credits.
Cast: Antonythasen Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers, Marc Zinga
Production companies: Why Not Productions, Page 114, France 2 Cinema
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenwriters: Noe Debre, Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard
Producer: Pascal Caucheteux
Director of photography: Eponine Momenceau
Production designer: Michel Barthelemy
Costume designer: C. Bourrec
Music: Nicolas Jaar
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Casting directors: Philippe Elkoubi, Mohamed Belhamar
Sales: Celluloid Dreams, Wild Bunch
No rating, 111 minutes.
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