Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers, Faouzi Bensaïdi, Marc Zinga
MPAA Rating: (for violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 5/6/16 (limited); 5/13/16 (wider); 6/3/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 3, 2016
The refugee experience is examined in Dheepan, a sturdy drama, focusing on questions of cultural assimilation and social integration, that eventually and inevitably turns to violence. It's the inevitability that doesn't sit quite right. As the movie approaches its climax, there's a feeling that the screenplay by director Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré is manipulating circumstances in order to orchestrate the story's final conflict.
The movie, then, is building in two directions. The first—and more involving one—is simply observing how a group of Sri Lankan refugees, after their displacement during the final part of a 25-year civil war within the island nation, adjusts to living in France. The second involves a gang of drug dealers in the apartment complex where the refugees come to live. More specifically, it's about how the eponymous character, a former rebel soldier, reacts to the presence of that gang—apathetic at first, since he has seen worse in his homeland, but quickly rising to righteous anger when the gang's actions directly affect him and the people he sees as his family.
There's a disconnect in the approaches of the two stories. The movie takes its time in the observations of and particular challenges for the refugees acclimatizing to the ways of a foreign land—learning the language, figuring out how to earn a living, finding their place in a very specific locale that looks and feels like a cultural melting pot but, occasionally, doesn't seem to have the room or the patience for them. When it's piecing together the circumstances that eventually lead to a showdown, though, the specificity is absent. It rushes to conflict just to get there.
It's as if the screenwriters, in order to make a point, are more concerned with getting where they want to go than with letting the story unfold from the elements that are already in place. They force the story to go in a certain direction, whether or not it makes logical and emotional sense. As a result, the movie stumbles in making the point for which it's reaching, and in the process, it loses the point of its low-key drama.
The family unit comprises the former solder Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), the refugee camp resident Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and the 9-year-old orphan Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). They are not, obviously, an actual family. Dheepan fought on the side of the Tamil Tigers against the government until the war was basically finished. His unit and his family were killed in the fighting.
When we first see Yalini, she is running around a refugee camp, inquiring children about their parents and asking adults if the children with them are their own. She finds Illayaal with the girl's aunt. Her parents were killed. Yalini ends up in custody of Illayaal, and the two meet Dheepan at a black market merchant in the camp. He gives them the passports of a dead family. The charade helps them receive political asylum in France, and eventually, they move out of Paris and to public housing outside the city proper.
There's inherent tension to the scenario as it stands. The faux family is always one wrong step from being discovered and sent back to Sri Lanka. The pretense of being a family is difficult for Yalini, who admits that she doesn't know how to act around children and that she would rather be in London, where a cousin lives. Without a job at first, Yalini spends her day lounging around the apartment, unsure of how to interact with the people around her. Illayaal begins attending a school that is culturally diverse, but while students of various ethnic backgrounds play together in harmony, she finds herself alone, friendless, and frustrated with her apparent inability to become part of the group.
Meanwhile, Dheepan settles into a routine and finds acceptance within the community with relative ease. He gets a job as the caretaker for the housing complex and works hard at it, gaining the respect of the residents, made up of immigrants from various countries and impoverished locals. That includes the gang members, who operate from one section of complex that is off-limits during their business hours. One member confides in Dheepan about what they do—hide drugs and conduct transactions.
It's Dheepan's home life that elicits the genuine conflict here. The two "parents" are at odds in how far they're willing to take the familial charade. While Yalini denies that there is a bond between the three, even if it's just on account of shared experience and for convenience, Dheepan becomes a caring, supportive father to his "daughter" and encourages his "wife" to find a way to fit in with her neighbors. That leads her to a job caring for an older man (Faouzi Bensaïdi) whose nephew Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) is on parole and taking over his family's illegal business.
The point is clear and spelled out by the screenplay: The refugees have left one warzone, only to find themselves in another. The meaning behind how the characters respond to that irony is more difficult to surmise (Audiard obfuscates it further by intentionally removing us from the consequences of the violence in a long take that follows a character's legs). Ultimately, Dheepan doesn't trust the heart of this story and, instead, pushes it into a sensationalized muddle of moral morass.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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