Dheepan Dir. Jacques Audiard

[IFC Films; 2015]

Styles: crime drama
Others: Taxi Driver, Death Wish, A Prophet, Rust & Bone

Recently, I was having a conversation with a teacher about what she called “cultural autism,” the placement of immigrant children in special education classes because they cannot speak the language of the school. This stuck out to me more than it normally would because I had just seen Dheepan, Jacques Audiard’s Palme D’Or winning drama about three Sri Lankan refugees who pose as a family to be granted political asylum in France. Not only does an identical situation occur in the film, it’s also filled with references to the social and cultural alienation of immigrants.

Dheepan begins in the last few days on the Sri Lankan civil war. Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is a soldier in the Tamil Tigers, the secessionist military organization who were been defeated by the Sri Lankan military in the war. He assembles a surrogate family with Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) as his wife and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) as his child in his refugee camp and flees the country assuming the identity of Dheepan, a dead man whose travel papers he uses. He finds work as a caretaker for a run down Paris housing project and becomes increasingly involved with the seedy drug traffickers who occupy one of the apartment blocks. The threat of violence becomes bigger and bigger for the family until Dheepan takes action.

The film’s violent narrative involving the war-like conflict within the apartment block feels ultimately unmotivated. It’s hard to see the point that such a duplication of violence and conflict in the asylum nation of an immigrant makes about the plight of refugees or the debates and issues surrounding immigration, in fact it seems to serve little else than to create entertaining, tense drama out of a topical issue. The film’s finale, which shows Dheepan and his “family” of fellow refugees living a seemingly comfortable life, entertaining (white and brown) guests for a pool party at their seemingly expensive house and speaking fluent French, has the feeling of an urgent political punchline but under scrutiny feels out of step with the themes the narrative had emphasized prior.

Though the film constantly makes reference to the main characters’ marginality and attempts to assimilate into European culture, the bombast of the Dheepan/drug trafficker narrative not only overwhelms these references but also always feels disjointed from them. Despite never taking center stage, the themes of marginality and assimilation are eternally more interesting that the violence and conflict Audiard overloads the narrative with.

Illayaal and Yalini prove to be the most fascinating characters in this sense, they are mostly left to their own devices by Dheepan and Yalini is made to deal with Illayaal’s myriad troubles brought on by her displacement. Ilayaal finds herself rejected at school, both institutionally (she is placed in a special needs class because she only speaks Tamil) and socially, by her peers. Furthermore, she rejects Yalini’s attempts to get her to assimilate. When Ilayaal complains that people always stare at her in public, Yalini suggests she fix this by wearing a veil, despite it not being her religious tradition to do so, and thus fitting in with a more stereotypical (and therefore recognizable) image of brown women in Europe. Audiard manages to handle these issues with delicacy in both his script and direction, bringing out a superbly nuanced performance from Kalieaswari Srinivasan, who manages to encapsulate her character’s horror at both having to assimilate and the isolation she will face if she fails to do so in her scenes with Vinasithamby’s Ilayaal.

Unfortunately, after the first half of the film, the characters are more accustomed to their environment and these themes fade to the background, allowing the violent narrative to kick into overdrive. If only Audiard were more willing to explore the nuances of his themes and characters in greater totality, Dheepan wouldn’t come off as frustratingly bi-focal as it does.

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