Being almost a year since it screened at Cannes Film Festival, the new film from A Prophet director Jacques Audiard, Dheepan is finally here in Vancouver and it had more mixed reactions in our press screening than I would have thought. I, personally, was really excited and curious to see the film that captured the most elite prize of the festival, the Palme d’Or, and figure out why it was considered a better film than the harrowing and definitive Holocaust film Son of Saul. One thing I can say, now having seen the film, is you can see the Coen’s stamp on the prestigious festival as judges because Dheepan is very much a film that plays to their sensibilities with a bit of Martin Scorcese mixed in.
Jacques Audiard is a filmmaker who inspires filmmakers. I remember hearing an interview with Fruitvale Station and Creed director Ryan Coogler about seeing A Prophet at Cannes and said it became an immediate favorite, something he returns to every time he needs to be inspired creatively. That’s high praise from a two-time feature director on the forefront to be one of the greatest storytellers working today. Audiard stunned me with his unique style in this film as well and it’s easy to see why his peers, critics and audiences alike all shower him with accolades as soon as he releases a film. So, is Dheepan worthy of his biggest award accomplishment yet or is it another overrated Palme d’Or winner and, yes, there are some of those out there.
Dheepan follows a Sri Lankan man who was part of the Tamil warriors, a militant organization. Faking his death, he adopts the name of Dheepan, as well as a stand-in wife, Yalini, and an orphaned girl, named Illayaal, to pose as their daughter. Together, the makeshift family is transported into France under a false story that the three desperately try to keep intact. The relationships are undeveloped, Yalini having a hard time exhibiting even the illusion of a mother-daughter relationship with the nine-year-old Illayaal and Dheepan is haunted by all that he’s left behind. It all gets that much more heightened when the three are shown to their new home.
Just outside of Paris, they are set up in a rundown housing project called Le Pré-Saint-Gervais where Dheepan is employed as the caretaker and, for the first time, Illayaal is enrolled in a real school. She is the only one with a command of the French language in the family, as Dheepan has only a very limited vocabulary and Yalini has none. As the family is being oriented to the area by the landlord, Youssouf, the reality of gang life in the neighborhood is glaringly obvious. It appears that the family may have escaped from one war zone into an urban landscape that may be just as dangerous, if not more.
With a recurring focus of fading in the picture from darkness to light and vice versa, Audiard continues to dazzle the audience with his impeccable eye for detail, shot by Éponine Momenceau, lensing his first feature. Through these fleeting moments that have a deep emotional connection to our lead character, we feel Dheepan’s motivations become more palpable as the fake family created to be a means to an end starts to become something more real and tangible, reminiscent of something he used to have and cherish. With the tightening of the fiber of their new family, Audiard continues to increase the mounting tension of their living situation until the third act climax, something that seems to be a big part of the differing opinions on the film.
As good as the individual at the helm of this film is, the film relies heavily on our lead three actors. It is an immigrant character piece and one that does a solid job in playing to audience sympathies, especially when they start to soften to each other, acclimate, and open up. The lead actor, Jesuthasan Antonythasan, seems to channel his actual affiliation as a child with the Tamil Tigers, subtly showing the emotional scarring that it exhibited on him. The other two supporting actresses, Kalieaswari Srinivasan (Yalini) and Claudine Vinasithamby (Illayaal) had never acted before yet show a worldly knowledge and give deeply compelling performances that feel like their coming from veterans. As the accolades for this film have shown, the acting in Dheepan is as pivotal as the direction and succeeds brilliantly.
The big question is whether the international acclaim and clout that last year’s Cannes Film Festival brought to this French made film will actually translate to people caring in the North American market. Given the subject matter, if this was an English made film starring a well-known cast, this film would be quite successful but with that not present, Dheepan will rely on the buzz of being from the mind of the man behind A Prophet, a film that does well on Netflix. I think that this film is worldly relevant, being that we are in a time where the refugee subject is in the media daily and yet we get more broad stroke stories there than individual focuses. As much as I’ll now reveal that Son of Saul is the better movie and deserved the Cannes top prize more, Dheepan is a film that could benefit the viewer on its topical connections and keep them engaged with a relatable human story. I really think this film is an important viewing and give it a four out of five.