Violence is everywhere.
This basic truth appears to be at the heart of Dheepan, the latest film from French filmmaker Jacques Audiard and a somewhat surprise recipient of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or.
The film kicks off with the title character (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) awkwardly forced together with two strangers, a young woman named Yalini (Klieaswari Srinivasan) and a nine-year-old orphan from a Sri Lanka refugee camp (Claudine Vinasithamby) to form a makeshift, instant family unit. The three have assumed the identities of a now deceased trio and use the accompanying passports to fly to Paris, a flight that one hopes will lead to a starting over of sorts. They are settled into what quickly becomes known as a gang-infested housing complex where they will be caretakers. The three are all severely wounded from their lives in Sri Lanka and their resettlement offers little chance of a quick recovery. Even the language, which only the young girl masters quickly, proves to be an almost insurmountable barrier.
The first part of Dheepan paints a very different portrait than it will become by film's end as our awkward family trio will attempt to rebuild their lives with some semblance of normalcy, new people in a new land united out of necessity yet somehow, with tremendous fragility, making it work. The film's main story arc centers around the lead character of Dheepan, played masterfully by Antonythasan, whose own background would reflect a deep understanding of everything that unfolds here. Antonythasan himself joined the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group warring against the Sri Lankan government for Tamil rights. Leaving the group at 19, he would leave the country and make several stops before arriving in France. If you know this fact about Antonythasan, it gives everything that happens with him an even deeper meaning.
While Antonythasan is a novice actor, he has a natural presence that reveals much even through his face and his eyes. It would be nearly impossible to not find him mesmerizing. In scenes with newcomer Srinivasan, the two are simply yet powerfully bringing to life the dynamics of a new relationship and the curious, boundaryless dance of communication that comes when two strangers are forced by circumstance to live together. In some ways, I felt like I was watching a film where two people were handcuffed to one another forced to learn how to get along. In this case, however, the circumstances are infinitely more dire and substantial and, of course, they also included the young charge they share, Illayaal (Vinasithamby), who herself does tremendously authentic and vulnerable work here.
There have been some that have complained about the film's dramatic shift toward film's end, when the film becomes less a sociological study and more an action flick. I say hogwash. In fact, I would say that this abrupt shift, while perhaps could have been paced in a more satisfying manner, is essential to the integrity of the film and to the message that the always on point Audiard is giving us. Indeed, violence is everywhere and it does not suffice to merely say it. It must be experienced.
The scenes involving Srinivasan give the film a different type of emotional resonance, not so much a lightness but an air of possibility even in the most dire of circumstances. At one point in the film, she becomes caregiver for a disabled elderly man and finds herself experiencing something resembling chemistry with a young drug lord in what is the central drug dealer's building. The young drug lord, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), possesses all the seductiveness of a drug dealer with a charisma and "bad boy" presence that gives their scenes both a tenderness and an electricity that always feels unpredictable.
Dheepan was picked up by Sundance Selects for a nationwide arthouse run and should unquestionably be popular with fans of Audiard's work that includes A Prophet, Rust & Bone and Read My Lips. The film opens in Indy on June 17th at the Landmark Keystone Arts Cinema. You'll want to check it out.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic