French filmmaker Jacques Audiard won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Dheepan, a film about displacement and human perseverance. Dheepan (played brilliantly by Jesuthasan Antonythasan) changes his name as he attempts to break all ties with his past (including being part of the LTTE movement in the civil war that battered Sri Lanka for over two decades), and heads to Europe in search of a new beginning. Dheepan takes on the identity of another man and joins Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), both of whom decide to claim Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) as their daughter – or their ticket out of the war zone. These three strangers set course to what is about to be a life-altering journey.
They land in France, a completely alien culture, language and way of life. As they are granted political asylum (depicted as a complete farce before the immigration officer), they find themselves sent to an obscure northern suburb of Paris (called Le Pré). They are given a small, pretty run down apartment, where Dheepan is to start work as a caretaker; cleaning buildings, sorting mail and the like.
With money woes at the forefront of their attempts at survival, Yalini takes up a job caring for an elderly man, helped by the resident ‘manager’ who basically works with the drug mafia that inhabits and controls this housing project. While Dheepan is attempting to get a sense of living free from the turmoil of civil war, Yalini still harbors the desire to escape to Britain, where her cousin is ready to welcome her. The young girl Illayaal takes to school, as she navigates bonding with the two adult strangers and deals with being the only non-French speaking, non-white kid in school.
Audiard sets all three characters on separate life journeys. While they share their physical environment and struggles with a foreign language and culture, the three interact with their surroundings and its events very differently. Dheepan is constantly in survival mode. He works, and navigates the slowly visible violence and money crimes that are all pervasive around him, while Yalini seems to have no empathy or desire to connect with him or Illayaal and is constantly planning her escape. Illayaal confronts Yalini about her lack of any empathy and feeling for her and asks her if she could just treat her like a human being, as she would a brother perhaps.
This suburban housing project is being run by drug dealers and overrun by money crimes. Audiard tries to present these two complex storylines of displaced war survivors looking for safe haven in the West and the realities of simmering violence and social tensions in these so called havens. It’s a clever story because it tries to mock the façade of how the West purports to be a sanctuary for the survivors of war, poverty, genocide etc., while the realities present just as tumultuous a world to refuges and asylum seekers, as in the countries they left behind.
Dheepan surely is a White perspective that plays into established notions of what it means to be an asylum seeker in the West. However, in many places, I found the filmmaker was able to break free from the stereotypical representation of non-white characters. None of the three protagonists are weak or submissive and the film stays clear of any victim generalizations of the protagonists. Placed in extremely treacherous circumstances, they score by showing resilience. While the film is primarily Dheepan’s point of view and there perhaps wasn’t much room to explore the underlying elements of the drug wars that are enslaving young people – both foreigners and French natives alike – the complexity of the narrative could surely have been investigated further. There was a lot to be said about the young that get drawn into these crimes. Sporadic dialogues were included where a gang member explains to Dheepan the motivations that brought him to these situations.
Another important relationship that Audiard is hesitant to explore is Yalini and the recently released from prison gang leader Brahim (Vincent Rottiers). Yalini prepares food for him regularly, as he returns to the home where she cares for the elderly man, and there is a slight probe into how far they would go, but Audiard withdraws and doesn’t show courage on that front. He continues to keep a barrier between them, linguistic, ethnic and even emotional.
The film is not about the craft of filmmaking, nor is it about narrative or creative brilliance. The strongest suit of the film, and which carries Audiard’s vision through, is lots of subject matter. There is not a sequence in the film that doesn’t have something to say story-wise, thus I stayed engaged by the three characters till the end. Dheepan’s past resurfaces as he resorts to violence to deal with this new enemy that threatens him. But then the climax/conclusion seems a bit forced as it plays into this typically Hollywood happily-ever-after narrative, which does raise questions on creative choices vs. commercial needs.
Dheepan is now playing in cinemas.