War will find you
A powerful story of survival from France
Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, a powerful new French film—winner of the 2015 Palme d’Or at Cannes—about Sri Lankan refugees, is both heartening and disturbing. And it’s exceptionally engaging in both respects.
The title character (played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is first seen as an armed soldier grimly witnessing a massive funeral pyre in the aftermath of some kind of massacre. Soon afterward, he is a deserter, on the run and seeking the forged identity papers needed for transport to Europe as a seeker of political asylum.
But since families get first priority, Dheepan is obliged to find another asylum-seeker who can pose as his wife. Soon enough, he finds Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who has already found the orphaned Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who, for immigration purposes, will become their daughter.
Each of the three is the lone surviving member of a family destroyed in the course of Sri Lanka’s civil wars, and each is desperate to leave the wreckage of his or her life and that nation as far behind as can be arranged. In this case, however, liberation as well as survival depend on their reinventing themselves as a family of three.
The hard-won rewards and obvious stresses of maintaining (and perhaps transcending) their imposed identities become unexpectedly moving parts of the newfound family’s story. And those dramatic stakes are heightened by the discovery that the machinery of the civil war is still making claims on Dheepan, even in France. Plus, Illayaal has trouble in adapting to life in a French school, and Yalini finds herself the recipient of some rather problematic special rewards in her work as a part-time maid/caregiver.
In France, their makeshift little family resides in a massive public housing complex. Dheepan has a job as a “caretaker” for a section of the complex that is a thinly veiled hotbed for criminal activity. The fraught circumstances in all that serve as compounding aggravations for the various individual struggles, and lead in part to an episode of violence, an outburst that seems to echo all that Dheepan hoped to leave behind.
The recurrence of violent conflict late in the film may seem more climactic that it actually turns out to be. There’s one more radical shift in store for Dheepan and his improvised family, and it brings the film to an unexpectedly (and perhaps deceptively) peaceful resolution. That element of peace and harmony arrives as the story jumps a couple of years ahead in the characters’ lives, and the suddenness of the leap, in screen time, could leave you feeling both gratified and mystified.