Jacques Audiard is deservedly the most internationally respected and fêted French director around at the moment. Every one of his films manages at the same time to be powerfully memorable, horrifically violent and yet unexpectedly lyrical, whether it be through the extraordinary coupling of thuggery and classical music in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the intensity of prison life seen through the eyes of a Candide-like figure in A Prophet, or the relationship between a prizefighter and a trainer of killer whales in Rust and Bone. His new movie, Dheepan, winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, is just as remarkable.
Centered on a former Tamil Tiger soldier, Dheepan opens with the Tigers burning their dead soldiers’ bodies. The scene then switches to a refugee camp in Sri Lanka, where a young woman, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), is desperately looking for unaccompanied children. She and the orphaned girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), whom she finds in the camp, end up being thrown into a fake family of three, all of them strangers to each other, with the former fighter. They use the passports of another family killed in the war to escape the violence of Sri Lanka and start a new life in France.
Eventually the man, now known as Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), finds a job (and a free home) as a caretaker in a rundown public housing project in one of the notorious Parisian banlieues. For much of the movie, the neighborhood is deceptively peaceful, with its inhabitants being unexpectedly kind to the new arrivals, but gangs and drug dealers prowl the streets and rooftops (in spite of all the illegal activity, there is never any sign of the police on the estate), and it soon becomes clear that Dheepan has escaped one war zone only to be dropped into another.
When Yalini gets a job cooking and cleaning for Habib, a man seemingly suffering from dementia, she comes into contact with the gang that has commandeered Habib’s sitting room as a meeting place. The gang leader, Brahim (played by the always excellent Vincent Rottiers), has just been released from prison and sometimes chats with Yalini and eats the food she cooks. She in turn is in awe of (and possibly a little in love with) him. In one lighter moment, she asks Brahim whether the electronic ankle bracelet he is wearing is a device to monitor his running, and he laconically replies that it is actually there to stop him from running.
Having been traumatized by the visceral violence of Audiard’s previous movies, I must admit that I was lured by the apparent tranquility and slow pace of most of Dheepan. When the violence comes as warfare erupts between the different gangs, catching Dheepan and his “family” in the middle, it is all the more shocking.
Although the ending, at odds with much of what has gone before, might not be to everyone’s taste, the portrayal of the three central characters as they attempt to create something real from the contrivance of their concocted family unit is astonishing and affecting. I loved in particular the feistiness of the young woman Yalini as she refuses to indulge Dheepan’s expectation that she should continue to show maternal affection for their “child” behind closed doors.
Audiard has said that Dheepan was initially inspired by Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, written in the 18th century, about foreigners commenting on Western culture and values, and indeed Dheepan and Yalini spend much of their time at home staring out the window, as if watching a film, at the comings and goings of their strange new neighbors.
With central performances as good as these, and with Audiard continuing to display the variety and innovation so indelibly associated with his filmmaking, I have little doubt that this movie, too, will remain a classic for years to come.