Filmmaker Jacques Audiard is known for his noir thrillers, films that are emotionally hardgoing but wholly worthwhile. His previous four works as writer/director are Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips), De battre mon cœur s’est arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped), Un prophète (A Prophet) and De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone). These are, in my eyes, essential viewing. 2015 Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, Audiard’s latest film on offer as part of Lotterywest Festival films, is a fresh addition to that list.
In Dheepan, we must consider what makes a family. It can be based on many complex concepts: love, pain, memory. The question is, can three total strangers become a real family, or are they destined to merely impersonate a hollow archetype?
The film begins with the conclusion of the Sri Lankan Civil War, and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. One of these Tigers (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) wants a new life – but it’s not easy to obtain political refuge elsewhere unless you have a convincing back story. To become the Dheepan of the film’s title, this man must recruit a wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and a 9-year-old daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), so they can utilise the passports of a family who died during the war. This new family, complete strangers to one another, leave for France, and become the caretakers of a housing project in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, a northern suburb of Paris.
They work hard at their new life, and we observe their daily life and ongoing difficulty with the language. The school teacher patiently presses the family on why Illayaal didn’t go to school in Sri Lanka, and looks skeptical when they say it burnt down. When the teacher asks who would dare burn down a school, Illayaal asks Dheepan how to say ‘government’ in French, and in those few words we begin to comprehend… The teacher is naive, sure, but so are we in the audience.
We don’t learn much about Yalini’s past over the course of the film, but her interactions with Illayaal are telling, as we see her struggle with her new-found motherhood and search for her own identity. Yalini’s tender side comes to the fore when she goes to work for the invalid father of the housing project’s crime boss, which also happens to put her in the middle of the action.
The drug deals, delinquents and firearms of Le Pré-Saint-Gervais quickly reveal that the family has managed to swap the Sri Lankan war zone for a Parisian one. However, these two-bit criminals never saw Dheepan coming…
Interestingly, Jesuthasan was a Tamil Tiger himself as a teenager. The war lasted over 25 years so is sure to have affected all Sri Lankans in some way, but Dheepan doesn’t have a moral message for us to swallow with a spoonful of sugar. It centres on this family and what they are willing to do to build something – anything – out of the ruins of their respective lives.
Dheepan is a drama really well made, with convincing and layered performances all round. In Dheepan’s quieter moments, we can see and feel the imprint the war has left on his psyche. However, at no point do we face the violence of Sri Lanka or Paris head on. We see it though the eyes of the characters, with their filters, their being too afraid to look, their not quite turning their head in time, their out-of-sight-out-of-mindedness.
For three quarters of the film, nothing much happens, yet I found myself watching with rapt attention. Dheepan has a pace all of its own so when we do reach its climax, we’re ready for it and our heart rate soars with the action. An aspect of Audiard’s work I particularly enjoy is the action sequences; they’re believable and well done, and because his films aren’t littered with them, they’re exactly what and where they need to be. This is an engaging, well-balanced film with emotional highs and lows, and is well deserving of the praise it’s been getting from critics and audiences alike.
Dheepan is now showing as part of Lotterywest Festival Films, Season 1. At UWA Somerville nightly until Sunday 31 January, then at ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday 2 to Sunday 7 February. Tickets/more info: perthfestival.com.au