Dheepan – Review

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The graceful fade-to-blacks that punctuate Dheepan, Jacques Audiard’s latest ball-busting, gritty drama, hint at the shadowy underside to its already blackened landscape. Whatever form the darkness takes next is typically a grim mockery of something innocent; light-up bunny ears (2 euro!) dissolve into focus from the murk, even though the scene just before has depicted nothing less than a country ripped apart by genocide. While Dheepan isn’t perfect, it does form a strong emotional narrative from its great characters and cast, bolstered by its unrelenting willingness to tackle its issues full-on.

The very premise of this glum yet lyrical picture grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go: a woman, man and girl – all from separate backgrounds – are thrown together for the need of asylum from Sri Lanka, and adopt the identities of a deceased family of three. Their new names: Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayaal. Starting a fresh life in the tough projects of Paris, Dheepan becomes caretaker for the concrete jungle that could end up being his prison, or his salvation. Though a drug war is being waged around them, and their identities are constantly in threat of being uncovered, by far the most interesting thread in Dheepan is how this unconventional – to say the least – family begin to form relationships. Could they eventually become a real family, having lost most of their own in a past life?

It’s this eternal question of a new start, a fresh beginning in almost every sense, that Audiard bends into shape as the film’s backbone. Their circumstance almost defies belief, but the actors are more than up to it: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby make these mismatched strangers perfect for one another; they each carry a shred of humanity that the other needs, adding up to something resembling a complete person. But their strands grow further apart when Dheepan eventually rejects his newfound caretaker alias, and falls back to his old brutal ways. It’s an arc that’s tragically inevitable. But while Dheepan and his fake wife Yalini receive plenty of attention, there’s not enough focus on their adopted ‘daughter’ Illayaal. Starting at a new school where you barely understand the language is already a situation ripe for character, let alone also having two fake parents; it’s a shame Audiard neglects Illayaal’s story, for it may have been the most important he could have told here.

While each scene is a tremendous feat of economic storytelling, featuring performances that speak across borders and languages, there lacks a distinct glue that sticks them all together. This tale, while both savage and beautiful, doesn’t have the narrative discipline of Audiard’s near-perfect A Prophet – and was also one of the problems with his last feature, Rust and Bone; otherwise, we’d have been looking at one of the finest films of the year. Instead, we have a Palme d’Or winner which is almost – almost – deserving of that accolade.


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