In Cannes 2015, Jacques Audiard returned to the festival with his latest film, Dheepan. The film was a success and stormed to the top and was given the highest award – the Palme d’Or. The competition was fierce and the announcement was met with a mix of acceptance and shock, but such is the temperament of the festival.
Dheepan is focused on the lives of three Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who flee the war there, but do so under the passports of another family. The three strangers end up in France and have to pretend to be a perfect family despite knowing little about each other. Whilst this does sound like a premise for a comedy (and there are some comedic moments), the piece is sombre and meditative on the themes of loss, love, and life in a foreign country.
Dheepan is the title character (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), a former Tamil Tiger who flees his home country to avoid persecution. He takes with him Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young woman who wants nothing better than to escape to her sister in London and is frustrated to be trapped in France until their asylum is granted. Their ‘daughter’ Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) finds adjusting to France the hardest, enrolling in a new school with new parents; she’s frightened but is just as determined to not to return home.
In France, the family are given a home on an estate and Dheepan becomes the primary caretaker. The tour of the area points out the local gang who run things – police are nowhere to be seen even when guns are fired into the night. The family of frauds attempt to exist in France, negotiating work, language and the gangs as best they can with varied results. Dheepan is resourceful and has a remarkable hand for ingenuity, taking to his new job as caretaker with gusto. It’s satisfying to see him build a tool box out of discarded materials, similar to how he’s building a life with strangers.
Audiard cut the film with long shots that look set to show something positive before cutting at the last second to another hurdle that threatens the trio’s peaceful existence. The film looks like the colour has been drained, to re-enforce the dourness of the situation even more than it was thought possible; the only bright lights are from the fireworks and cheap toys Dheepan sells in the heart of Paris from time to time.
While the ‘family’ tries to adjust, it is Yalini who yearns for more freedom. Having escaped her country she now wants to escape her family, even at the risk of exposing their fraud. Living in France she feels cut off from other people but witnesses the freedom they have, eyeing up the tight clothes and make-up she doesn’t have.
The estate grows more and more dangerous as time goes on. As things heat up the family feel surrounded and it looks like the war that they fled has found them again. This leads to a thrilling conclusion that has been building since the film began, but still feels over the top in some respects. Some may feel betrayed by the ending which some may find too optimistic, considering the past two hours of the movie suggesting the complete opposite. Despite this, it is a wildly good film that is gripping and draws you in, giving an insight into a refugee’s life not often explored.
Words by Sunny Ramgolam