The first sequence in Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan,” winner of the 2015 Palme d’Or in Cannes, shows the title character, a Tamil freedom fighter, laying palm leaves across a burning pyre of corpses. Soon he burns his own military uniform.
Played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who in real life was trained and fought as a Tamil soldier until the age of 19, Dheepan is primed to escape Sri Lanka for France. As a cover, he joins an improvised family of fellow fleers: Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young woman searching the tent settlements for an orphan girl, and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), the child she finds, who looks about 9 years old. Using the passports of three dead people, they manage their deliverance.
The extreme emotional dislocation that these people would normally feel under such circumstances is compounded by the dangerousness of their new lives. After enduring a social services interview in which, through an interpreter, their cover story is grudgingly bought, the “family” is relocated to a multiblock housing project on the outskirts of Paris that is thronged with dope dealers. Dheepan works as the project’s caretaker, while Yalini ends up taking care of a catatonic old man whose nephew, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), recently released from prison, is the local gang leader. Illayaal is placed in a special-needs class with other immigrant children learning French and, at first, is cruelly excluded from their games.
The drug dealers, who congregate at night in the courtyard outside Dheepan’s window, are a reminder of the violence he left behind in Sri Lanka. He and Yalini watch the firelit goings-on – the gunplay and assaults – as if they were watching a movie. The onslaughts seem both dreamlike and frighteningly palpable. These immigrants have, it seems, traded one nightmare for another. They do not even have the solace of being a true family. Yalini harbors no affection for Dheepan and speaks often of leaving both him and Illayaal behind and escaping to a cousin’s home in London. Her wary relationship with Brahim, in some ways the most heartfelt in the movie although nothing overt happens between them, is no real consolation to her. We know, because of Brahim’s volatility, that the fuse has already been lit on that time bomb.
At his best, Audiard (“A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone”) has a gift for transforming melodrama into something more emotionally resonant. The correspondence between past and present horrors for these people emerges naturally from the material, without any underlining. The slight thaw in the relationship between Dheepan, who lost his entire family in Sri Lanka, and Yalini, who trusts no one, is likewise unforcedly forceful in its presentation. This makeshift sham of a family becomes a species of family after all – or at least it might have been so if that fuse hadn’t ignited.
When it does, the movie, alas, devolves into an art-house “Death Wish,” and Audiard, who has scrupulously avoided melodrama, dives into it headfirst. I don’t think he and his co-screenwriters, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, were necessarily looking to juice up the movie with late-inning fireworks, but that’s how it comes across. (A tacked-on coda, equally unbelievable, doesn’t help.) Perhaps if Jesuthasan, a published novelist, essayist, and political activist, were a trained actor, this closeout wouldn’t seem so contrived. But throughout much of the movie, he’s indrawn in ways that are meant to seem “authentic” but more often than not just seem sullen. By contrast, the two women seem marvelously expressive. Still, for most of the movie, “Dheepan,” for all its flaws, is hard-hitting in ways that count. It has the intimacy of a personal drama but the amplitude of a much larger immigrant odyssey. Grade: B+ (Rated R for violence, language, and brief sexuality/nudity.)