The Palme d’Or-winning Dheepan is deceptively unadorned. In its simplicity, it digs for complex feelings and ideas — and is particularly timely, considering current political winds and Paris’ announcement of its first refugee camp.
In French and Tamil, the drama follows three people fleeing civil-war-torn Sri Lanka. They pretend to be a family to start new lives in France. The film unfolds in layers, revealing at its leisure truths about the past, the nature of the characters’ new world and the birth of a new family.
Having escaped chaos and violence at home, the faux family finds itself in the midst of a conflict among French gangs. Dheepan is far more about the refugee experience than the plot, however, and director and co-writer Jacques Audiard deftly guides the story while conveying the evolution of emotions among characters.
Audiard (Rust and Bone) is also responsible for the searingly tense A Prophet. Here, he places the immigrant struggle in the fore, allowing threats of past and present to slowly bubble to the surface.
As youthful “daughter” Illayaal, Claudine Vinasithamby portrays the confusion of an orphan looking for a center of gravity. As “wife” Yalini, Kalieaswari Srinivasan delivers a complex performance, admirably unconcerned with whether Yalini is likable.
“Husband” Dheepan is portrayed by Antonythasan Jesuthasan with the kind of depth too often obviated by actory gestures in Hollywood films. His remarkably direct, truthful work convinces of Dheepan’s desperate need to escape the horrors of his past. The film gains extra resonance with the knowledge that Jesuthasan was once a child soldier with the Tamil Tigers.
Dheepan doesn’t suit certain current political narratives stoking fear of refugees; instead, it burrows into the hearts and minds of human beings trying to find a world in which it’s possible to have a life worth living.
In French, Tamil and English with English subtitles
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Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan
Rated: R (strong language, violence)
Running time: 115 min.