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Dheepan

September 10, 2016

Dheepan (2015)
Director: Jacques Audiard
Actors: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinavasan, Claudine Vinasithamby

dheepan.jpg (300×169)

Synopsis: An ex-Tamil soldier (Anthonythasan Jesuthasan) takes on the fake identity of “Dheepan” in the dying embers of the Sri Lankan civil war. Together with a fake, surrogate family, he migrates to France, where he winds up working as a caretaker in a dangerous Parisian banlieue; the sights and sounds there finding echoes in his traumatic Sri Lankan past.

Review: Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winning Dheepan packs a real punch and, if nothing else, showcases Audiard’s skills as one of the most stylish cinematic storytellers on the planet, but for my taste at least, its increasing lurch into thriller mode in its final act – and jettisoning of its previously rich social commentary – felt a misstep and anti-climactic.

The opening half of the film is nigh on perfect though; an exhibition of superior storytelling as Audiard in a brisk but lucid way takes us right into the story and emotional particulars of how his three Sri Lankan protagonists were forced to fake their flight to France by posing as a family unit. There’s a wonderful elliptical cut to signify the bittersweet pathos of migration as we move from the traumatic and fraught opening stretches in Sri Lanka to a seemingly upbeat neon vista in Paris, only for the camera to focus in on a more banal truth – that Dheepan is flogging some naff, cheap luminous toys on some insalubrious corner of Paris.

It’s Dheepan and his surrogate family’s plight in Paris which is at the core of what is so right – but then ultimately unsatisfying – about Dheepan‘s narrative destination. It’s a very evocative initial journey, communicating the confusion and helplessness as Dheepan’s family somehow earn their way to a dilapidated banlieue on the outskirts of Paris through nervous meetings with the authorities and a mish-mash of exchanges in their native Sri Lankan tongue, French and the relatively neutral English. A particularly impressive scene is when the ‘daughter’, Illayaal, goes to school and is thrust into an overwhelming Special Ed class on her first day.

The balance between social commentary and genre (there are some unbelievably gripping and suspenseful sequences) is well managed by Audiard at first. By the last thirty minutes however, nearly everything has become subservient – including Illayaal’s childhood travails – to a more thriller/gangster denouement as Dheepan increasingly engages with his dangerous banlieue as if he were back in combat ‘Tamil Tiger’ mode. Though an interesting idea in hinting at the legacy of wartime trauma and perhaps critiquing the shallowness of inner-city criminal gangs, it feels too scripted and arbitrary, from the moment Dheepan starts inexplicably challenging the hoodlums in the area who threaten his ‘family’ onward. It’s still a watchable, classy film, but in Audiard’s rush to entertain, he sells out the more fertile, plaintive territory of his subject matter. (September 2016)

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