Dheepan reaction: Cannes 2015

French filmmaker Jacques Audiard has premiered his latest, Dheepan, at the Cannes Film Festival. Here’s Jordan Farley’s reaction…

Following the two most celebrated films of his career – A Prophet and Rust And Bone – could not have been easy, but Jacques Audiard’s remarkable run continues with Dheepan. It’s an unusual hybrid – part intimate immigrant drama, part suburban thriller, with the emphasis emphatically on social realism for the bulk of its runtime. It shouldn’t work, but it soars under Audiard’s supervision.

Jesuthasan Antonythasan stars as a Tamil freedom fighter who assumes the name Dheepan and flees to France, seeking asylum with two strangers – his would-be wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and daughter Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The ruse works and Dheepan’s makeshift family unit is moved to the suburbs of Paris, where he is appointed janitor of a run-down housing block that a local drug-dealing gang has occupied. As Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal slowly start to resemble a real family the violence on the estate tests their resolve, and triggers a latent warrior instinct in Dheepan.

Though far from the first film to tackle the big themes of immigration and starting a life in a strange new land, Dheepan does so in a tender and engaging fashion, and with a compelling hook: can three strangers learn to become a family? From the outset Dheepan is resolved to make it work. He’s seen the horrors of war and is not willing to go back, even gunfights between local hoods outside his window seem tame compared to the civil war in Sri Lanka. Yalini is initially distant and sees the family as nothing other than a marriage of convenience, wishing to move to England where she has real family waiting for her. But even she comes round to life on the block, caring for the father of a local drug lord recently released from prison, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers). The film is less interested in Illayaal, who picks up French much quicker than her faux-parents and often acts as translator, but disappears to school whenever the drama doesn’t require her.

All three are superb, particularly Antonythasan – a quiet man with explosive rage bubbling just beneath the surface. For the most part he’s muted and subdued, even in conversation with his countrymen, clearly suffering from PTSD. He lets his demons out in a series of nightmarish sequences, screaming Tamil chants at the top of his voice while getting wasted in a darkly lit basement, and is chillingly efficient when the violence does eventually erupt. He’d make a great Terminator.

The film is careful and considered in its approach to the ever-growing but fragile connection between the family, hopeful that maybe something beautiful can spring from this unlikely alliance. As time goes on people start to admire Dheepan for the good work he does around the building, which is routinely trashed by the drug dealers; Yalini earns the respect of Brahim, who appreciates the care she gives his father; and Illayaal races ahead at school. But unlike the blossoming bond between the family it’s clear there’s no future for the trio in this place – they’ve simply traded one unstable warzone for another.

Dheepan’s niftiest trick is successfully walking an extremely treacherous tightrope between social-realist drama and action thriller. Dheepan wants nothing more than to put war behind him but violence is something he just can’t seem to escape. In one oddly isolated scene a former colonel of Dheepan’s turns up in the apartment block requesting Dheepan help raise a ludicrous sum of money to send guns back to the Tigers. It’s a scene that comes out of nowhere and is never referenced again making it unclear whether it’s reality or Dheepan’s mind playing tricks.

The film’s final 10 minutes will either enthral or completely alienate given what’s come before, and a cheesy coda is entirely unnecessary, but Dheepan is an impressive and unusual genre mishmash, magnificently executed by Audiard. It’s not his best work, but stands as a strong entry in this year’s festival.

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