Can they adapt themselves to their new identities? Can they settle together in a world new and alien to them? And, above all, can they accept each other as someone more than an accomplice? Through three strangers who happen to stick together for a new life far from their homeland, Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan”, which won the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, gives us an engaging human drama supported by small, precious moments during its first two parts, and it mostly works in spite of the problematic third act, which is a little too jarring but does not entirely ruin what has been built up so well during the rest of the film.
In the beginning, we see how its three main characters come across each other around the end of the long, violent civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, which was officially ended in 2009 May with the admission of defeat from the Tamil Tigers. After his unit is disbanded with muted bitterness during the opening scene, Tamil Tigers militant Sivadhasan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) must leave Sri Lanka for his safety, but then he needs a faux family for hiding his identity and securing a political asylum, and that is how Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) come into the picture. Yalini wants to get out of Sri Lanka as well, and Illayaal is a young orphan girl who is not particularly wanted by anyone.
Three passports from a recently deceased family are already prepared for them when they join together at a refugee camp, and Sivadhasan becomes Dheepan while Yalini and Illayaal respectively become Dheepan’s wife and young daughter on paper. Not long after they come into France, they are granted temporary visas thanks to an unexpected help, and then they are allowed to stay in a housing project located in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, a suburban area outside Paris which is known by locals as “Le Pré” (it means ‘the meadow’ in French). Their new place in one of the shabby apartment buildings in this housing project does not look that good, but it is certainly better than their former residence in Paris – and now they do not have to worry about getting deported.
They get settled in their new environment bit by bit. As he does cleaning and fixing jobs around the housing project as a resident caretaker, Dheepan becomes a familiar presence to his neighbors of various origins while also being cautious about drug-selling gangs in the neighborhood, who usually hang around an apartment building right next to the one where Dheepan and his fake family live. Although she is as clumsy in speaking French as her ‘husband’, Yalini has no problem in taking care of Monsieur Habib (Faouzi Bensaïdi), a senile old man whose cozy apartment sometimes functions as a meeting place for the gang members operating downstairs. Illayaal has some difficulty during her first day in the school, but she soon gets over it, and she is useful whenever Dheepan or Yalini needs a translator.
They begin to look more like a real family as time goes by, but there is still visible awkwardness among them as they are strangers merely held together by their common pact. Dheepan still misses his dear family he lost during the war (the movie do not tell us what exactly happened to them, by the way), and there is always the distance between him and his synthetic family even when Dheepan comes to care more about them. Yalini has been frustrated as waiting for her chance to go to England, and she is not entirely comfortable with playing the wife of a man she does not know well. Unsure about her position between her ‘parents’, Illayaal demands more than casual affection from both of them, and Dheepan and Yalini are not prepared for that.
As Monsieur Habib’s criminal nephew Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) is released from prison, the movie takes a sudden narrative turn with increasing tension, and that is the point where it switches itself into a more conventional mode. Not long after Dheepan is painfully reminded of the violent past he wants to leave behind, his neighborhood is shaken by a local gangland war involved with Brahim, and he becomes as agitated as Yalini and IIlayaal while they watch the neighborhood being turned into a small conflict zone. Dheepan decides to do something about that, and his subsequent actions do not look well to other gangs in the neighborhood besides Brahim, who appreciates Yalini’s service to his ailing uncle but may consider a drastic choice if it is deemed to be necessary.
This perilous situation eventually culminates into a gritty climactic sequence coupled with lots of shootings, and there is a restrained but striking moment unfolded around smoky staircase. I am not sure about whether this generic part works as well as intended, for it feels like an artificial climax which resolves the circumstance too conveniently and is then followed by the obligatory epilogue scene as required.
Nevertheless, the movie remains to be held up well together by the strong unadorned acting by its three main performers. We do not know much about their characters’ past in Sri Lanka, but we are involved in how they try to deal with their difficult present together or separately. Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who was actually a Tamil Tigers militant during his adolescent years and then later came to France as a refuge, fills his character with authenticity and dignity, and I heard later that a considerable part of the film was based on his own struggling years in France. Kalieaswari Srinivasan, an Indian actress who made a debut with this film, deftly handles her character’s emotional shifts along the story, and she is especially good when Yalini finds herself drawn to Brahim during their small conversation scene; despite their language barrier, what is being exchanged between them is clear to us, and that puts another strain on her relationship with Dheepan. Young actress Claudine Vinasithamby is also commendable as another crucial part of the story, and she and her co-stars are believable in the gradual changes in the interactions between their characters.
“Dheepan” is not as powerful as the director/co-writer Jacques Audiard’s previous films “A Prophet” (2009) and “Rust & Bone” (2012), but it comes with strong moments to compensate for its weak points. Like the mismatched couple in “Rust & Bone” or the young prisoner hero in “A Prophet”, the main characters in “Dheepan” struggle from the bottom in a daunting situation they are stuck in, and it is often poignant to watch them holding onto each other to go through another day of their uncertain life. My late friend Roger Ebert once said he liked movies about good people, and “Dheepan” surely qualifies as such a film. I wish it were more about their human matters than simple shootout.