STARRING: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby
The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Sri Lankan refugees of Jacques Audiard's "Dheepan," who flee their war-torn homeland only to find themselves in a new conflict zone in the housing projects of Paris. A typically unpredictable career move by the prolific and eclectic Audiard following the unabashedly melodramatic romance "Rust and Bone" and the searing crime drama "A Prophet," this almost entirely Tamil-language immigrant drama unfolds in solidly involving, carefully observed fashion for much of its running time, until it takes a heavy-handed turn into genre territory from which it never quite recovers. Commercially, this will be a more specialized item than Audiard's other recent work, especially in the U.S., where the film was acquired by IFC in advance of its Cannes bow. Still, its surprise Palme d'Or win could improve its prospects.
There's certainly no disputing that one of the breakout stars of Cannes this year is Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a former child soldier with the Sri Lankan militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who fled the country in the late 1980s and eventually made his way to France, where he became an acclaimed playwright, essayist and novelist. "Dheepan" marks his first leading role in a film, but his commanding screen presence suggests it will not be his last.
Drawn partly from his own experiences, Antonythasan's character here, Sivadhasan, is a rebel fighter who finds himself on the losing side in the waning days of Sri Lanka's civil war, and he resolves to make a new start in France. But in order to claim asylum, he'll need a convincing-cover story (as one of the oppressed, rather than an oppressor) and a family (having lost his own wife and child to the carnage). In a refugee camp, he's given the passport of a dead man, Dheepan, and paired with a wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and 9-year-old daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), then placed on a boat bound for Paris.
Dheepan and his new "family" are granted temporary visas and relocated to a large housing block in Le Pre-Saint-Gervais in Paris' northeastern suburbs, where he lands a job as the resident caretaker. Le Pre (ironically, "the meadow") is more of a concrete jungle where shadowy figures congregate, and Audiard, who co-wrote the film with his regular collaborator Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre, does a fine job of conveying, cinematically, the characters' initial sense of displacement and disorientation as they navigate this not-quite promised land. Immigrant tales and portraits of banlieue life have been a steady subgenre of French cinema for decades, but there's a freshness to Audiard's gaze here.
"Dheepan" is full of small but revealing details of language and other cultural barriers that make everyday life a struggle --one that continues behind the closed doors of Dheepan's apartment, where he and Yalini dance awkwardly around the fact that they are merely pretending to be husband and wife and, at least initially, seem to harbor no real feelings for each other. Some of the sharpest scenes in the film concern the various ways in which even a fake couple are forced to contend with the problems of coupledom and child rearing, as the emotionally fragile Illayaal begins acting out at school, and craves an unconditional love that neither of her "parents" knows how to provide.
Audiard implies early on that there are dangerous elements afoot on the periphery of the housing block, but the exact nature of their dealings becomes clear only when Yalini goes to work as a home-health aid for Mr. Habib, an infirm senior whose living room seems to be ground zero for the Le Pre dope trade. It's there that Yalini first encounters Brahim (Vincent Rottiers, the French Edward Norton), a recently paroled lieutenant in Habib's operation who stirs something in her that her sham husband does not. Meanwhile, Dheepan, unaware of Yalini's new criminal cohorts, begins a crusade to clean up the neighborhood a bit, including the designation of a no-conflict zone in the central courtyard.
It's around this point that "Dheepan's" tightly focused narrative starts to spiral a bit out of Audiard's control. There are so many stories competing for attention here that, in the end, they all get a bit shortchanged. But that's nothing compared with an abrupt action climax that feels like it stepped out of a 1980s Charles Bronson vigilante movie and which, despite hints that we might be headed in such a direction, feels mostly like an easy way of ending the show. Audiard supposedly rushed to finish "Dheepan" in time for Cannes (the print screened lacked final credits), and while the version shown didn't lack the director's typical technical polish, some additional time in the editing room might help to smooth over the movie's rougher patches.
What keeps "Dheepan" engaging throughout is the tremendous charisma of the performers--not only Antonythasan, whose brooding intensity suggests that Dheepan's real war is the one raging inside him, but Srinivasan, an Indian stage actress also making her film debut here, who is achingly tender as a young woman forced to become a wife and mother when she has barely figured out who she is herself.
CREDITS: (France) A UGC (in France)/IFC Films (in U.S.) release and presentation of a Why Not Prods, and Page 114 production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, France Televisions, with the support of la Region Ilede-France, in association with Cinema 9, A Plus Image 5, Palatine Etoile 12, Indefilms 3, La Banque Postale Image 8, Cofinova 11, Sofitvcine 2, Soficinema 11. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams/Wild Bunch, Paris.)
DIRECTED BY Jacques Audiard. screenplay, Noe Debre, Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard. CAMERA (COLOR, WIDESCREEN), Eponine Momenceau; editor, Juliette Welfling; music, Nicolas Jaar; PRODUCTION designer, Michel Barthelemy; COSTUME DESIGNER, C Bourrec; SOUND, Daniel Sobrino; SUPERVISING sound editor, Valerie Deloof; RE-RECORDING MIXER, Cyril Holtz; LINE PRODUCER, Martine Cassinelli; assistant director, Jean-Baptiste Pouilloux; CASTING, Philippe Elkoubi, Mohamed Belhamar. reviewed AT Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 21,2015. RUNNING TIME: 110 MIN.
CAST Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers, Marc Zinga. (TAMIL, FRENCH, ENGLISH DIALOGUE)