DHEEPAN – the new award-winning film from maestro director Jacques Audiard – is a majestic drama with truly extraordinary performances.
Any film by Jacques Audiard – one of my favourite directors – is an event and DHEEPAN is no exception. I was so fortunate to see a screening of it as part of last year’s BFI London Film Festival in October and now that it’s finally got a UK release, I can tell you how superb it is.
In a war-torn Sri Lanka, a Tamil warrior (the extraordinary, first-time actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan) tired of the killings he’s been party to, creates a new persona ‘Dheepan’ in order to flee the country to a new life. But he can’t go alone as this would be too suspicious. Meeting a young woman, Yalini (the brilliant Kalieaswari Srinivasan) whose desire to leave is no less acute than his, they find a girl Illyaal (an affecting Claudine Vinasithamby) who has lost her parents and the three form a family.
The authorities sign off their exit papers and they wait to be transported to their new home. Yalini’s choice of England is dismissed by Dheepan, he thinks France will offer more opportunity and suddenly we’re presented with the first of Audiard’s strikingly surreal visions – a slow-mo shot of Dheepan walking towards us with flashing neon bunny ears on his head. We realise he’s already one of the immigrant sellers we find on the streets, trying to make ends meet by hawking trinkets and toys to tourists. Before long, Dheepan realises this can’t sustain his new ‘family’ and with their broken French and their stories of what they’ve been through, they get billeted to a new location – a housing estate on the outskirts of Paris.
It’s here that Dheepan will work as a caretaker for the some of the tower blocks on the estate, realising after a while that they are part of a turf war for all kinds of illegal activity, presided over by Brahim (a dynamic Vincent Rottiers) the local kingpin, fresh out of jail. When Yalini then gets a job looking after Brahim’s ailing relative, she begins to see a different side to this violent young man but it’s also Brahim’s return that signals visions for Dheepan of his brutal past, which again display Audiard’s mastery with visual storytelling. Can the family survive here in this new world, or will the past come back with a vengeance to destroy what hope they may have started to feel?
DHEEPAN follows in the footsteps of Audiard’s other wondrous movies, A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Rust and Bone, by showcasing some truly remarkable performances – Antonythasan brings a tender quality to some moments, contrasting with a hulking power in others, Rottiers has a feral intensity that makes you watch him when he’s on screen and Srinivasan’s petite presence hides a formidable will that shows how she’s survived whatever horrors she’s encountered.
Since it won the ‘Palme d’Or’ at last year’s Cannes film festival, there has been much talk of it doing so because of its subject matter coinciding with real events and the influx of refugees into Europe. But that shouldn’t take away from Audiard’s accomplishment of bringing a story to our attention that is both extremely important and incredibly moving. By casting Jesuthasan Antonythasan, whose own life story led to Audiard moulding the film around a large number of his experiences, we’re given a real insight into the struggles some people have had to go through to find a new life away from the horrors of war. That authenticity which Audiard captures so acutely with DHEEPAN is to be celebrated and rewarded – and seen.