A Sri Lankan Tamil warrior is forced to flee to France to escape the civil war, posing as a family with a woman and young girl he has never previously met. Finding work as a caretaker of a housing block in the suburbs of Paris, Dheepan works to build a new life and home for his ‘wife’ and ‘daughter’, but the daily violence he confronts quickly reopens the violence from his past, and he is left fighting for their livelihood, and eventually their lives.
The world is cleaved by End-Of-Times fanaticism and Occupy global optimism, rock concert massacres and 2000-mile walls between countries, economic imperialism and regime-change refugees. We are polarised to a degree that is unprecedented: look no further for evidence than the preposterous ascension of Donald Trump’s clownocracy. Terrorism has changed the Free World irreparably, so much so that the epithet is hardly applicable any more. People are on the move and traditional borders, even the idea of borders, are disintegrating. Do we have a moral obligation to help people whose lives have been shattered or a civic duty to keep them out, you know, just in case? Jacques Audiard’s newest film, Dheepan (winner of the Palm D’Or at Cannes), as one would expect from an Audiard film, does not rely on Manichean shorthand.
Dheepan is a family man, a refugee, and he and his family are dead. The Dheepan the film follows is a former Tamil Tiger fighter (played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, an actual former Tamil fighter, now primarily a writer)—a man who has killed, a man who is either a hero or a terrorist, depending on who’s writing the history. Having lost the struggle, he needs to get out of Sri Lanka, and to do so, he must become a refugee and not a fighter, hence the convenience of the newly available passport. To be convincing, he needs a woman even more desperate to leave than he is, a woman he’s never met, who will be become his pretend wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan, astonishingly, in her first role). The newly christened Yalini scours the camps for a girl without parents, finds one (Claudine Vinasithamby, again, equally astonishingly, a first time actor) and yanks her along as her new daughter, whether she wants it or not. They become a family of desperate strangers and lie to get into Europe. They commit fraud. They manipulate a system set up for the victims of a bloody war, not the perpetrators. Hardly a softhearted, soft focus call for understanding, or multi-culturalism, or compassion—basically, it’s like all the worst fears of the alarmists in the West are true. But these are human beings, flawed, desperate, and complex.
Audiard has trafficked in films that aren’t easy: not moralistically easy, not easy to reduce to a sentence or high concept, and characters not easy to stereotype: no heroes to root for, or villains to hiss. In The Prophet, Malik (Tahar Rahim), is not your typical waif, a victim of an institutionalised prison system. No squishy humanity-in-the-most-brutal-situations here. Malik may be an ingénu, but he also kills in cold blood to get ahead. We like him, we root for him, but he’s not exactly good. Or bad. Or anything. Like people. In Rust And Bone, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is in a wheelchair, having lost her legs after a grisly accident. We all know how that goes. But instead of being a-victim-in-a-courageous-struggle-against-adversity, she can be a bitch. Sympathy isn’t something that’s taken for granted.
Arriving in France, the three strangers, who barely fit their passports, are relocated to a housing project in a banlieue on the northern edge of Paris where Dheepan is given a job as a caretaker. The slum is an alternative city-state of asylum seekers of all nations, less a melting pot than cold storage, left to fend for themselves, clean up after themselves, and police themselves. The ersatz family settles into this microcosm. Dheepan cleans up and does repairs around the schedules of the drug dealers and hit-men. Illayaal goes to school. Yalani gets bored, being intrinsically lazy, and can’t really stand either member of her new family. We know little of her back story, but we do know she is mercenary, ruthless, and draconian, and doesn’t have a spark of maternal instinct: she would callously grab a girl, any girl, in order to use her as a camouflage to get out of the country and then abandon her without a thought in the new one. She sees no point in staying in France—she got what she wanted, and now plans to move to the UK to be with her cousin—but is persuaded by Dheepan to hang on until all their papers have come through. Reluctantly, she takes a job looking after a stranded man named Habib who suffers from dementia. The rule of the gang controlling the semi-derelict buildings is absolute, and they set up their business offices—drugs, extortion, violence—wherever they want to, from Habib’s living room—which functions as a gang den—to the lobbies and rooftops. They don’t bother to kill you if you don’t pose a threat; as long as you clean, fix things, cook, and generally keep your eyes down, you are a tolerated non-presence, like a pilot fish cleaning a shark’s teeth or a dung beetle.
But Dheepan’s former commander shows up, himself a refugee, and we see that the trauma and physical scars run very, very deep. Things get hazy for Dheepan, his past becoming somewhat present, and he starts treating his fake wife with bullying possessiveness, he starts ‘to believe the cover story,’ as Yalani says. It’s not only painful memories that are activated, but also the hyper-efficient killing instinct. Suddenly alpha again, a vigilante, he stands up for his own bit of turf and tries to forge a slice of civilization in a place that resists it. Yalani is horrified by his sudden crusade against gang violence; it seems hypocritical coming from a Tamil Tiger. ‘It’s not the same thing,’ he says to her. ‘Why?’ she responds, ‘because you did the shooting?’
In Dheepan, Audiard explores the current diaspora of chaos, shattering received beliefs and teasing out the dark complexities of seemingly fixed situations and characters. It’s not the self-interest, the fear, the greed, or the kindness that shines through—it’s the shared humanity. And this is something Audiard delivers without sentiment or prejudice.