Cannes Film Festival: Dheepan

Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby and Vincent Rottiers

by Joanna Orland

Jacques Audiard’s latest film Dheepan is a powerful drama about three strangers who are brought together through the hardship of war.  To escape war torn Sri Lanka, refugee Yalini finds nine year-old Illayaal to pose as her daughter in order to act as the family for former Tamil Tiger fighter Dheepan.  Yalini and Illayaal take the place of Dheepan’s true wife and daughter who have perished in the fighting.  Together, these three refugees need each other in order to build new lives for themselves in France.

Barely acquaintances, the newly formed family settle into a housing project outside of Paris, where Dheepan finds work as a caretaker, and Yalini as a caregiver to a severely disabled man.  Illayaal is enrolled in a local school where she is placed in a special needs class as her level of French is not up to par.  Each character in Dheepan is wrought with struggles.  For Illayaal, it is not merely her not having any friends that plagues her, but it is also the loss of her true parents that she grieves.  With Illayaal’s mother having been killed in the war, Yalini is proving no substitute as she herself is not comfortable with children, and even admits to being willing to leave Illayaal behind in a heartbeat if she saw the opportunity.  Yalini herself never wanted to move to France, but longs to be in England with her cousin.  She makes the most of the situation by finding work, but never feels fully accepted into French society with language as a barrier, and even her physicality making her feel like a standout.  Dheepan struggles to keep his new family in order, but moreso finds life in the housing project overly familiar as gangs rule the estate and use the grounds as a base for their drug ring.

While each character is fully realized with their own complexities and stories, it is their relationship as a newly formed family which proves to be the heart of this film.  Dheepan is far from a romance tale, but the dynamic between these three strangers is a beautiful story to witness unfold.  Finding companionship with each other is one thing, but they grow to not just love each other, but to be reliant on each other to help them through adapting to their new lives while still dealing with the trauma which they endured during the war itself.  Illayaal relies on Dheepan and Yalini to care for her as parental substitutes.  Yalini while keeping Illayaal at arm’s length slowly warms to her while becoming more attached to Dheepan himself.  Dheepan needs both girls in his life in order to seek refugee status in France, but grows emotionally dependent on them as well to help him overcome the PTSD that he suffers from post-war.  Their mutual dependencies deepen as housing project gang leader Brahim (Rottiers) is released from prison, returning in order to regain control of his drug empire – a plot point which plunges the characters’ already dire plight into further chaos.

Rust and Bone, A Prophet, and The Beat That My Heart Skipped director Jacques Audiard has created something very special with Dheepan.  He has managed to capture the complexities of the aftermath of war, but with a very human focus.  While strangers to each other and the audience, these characters are so full of depth and richness that the audience feels fully invested in their daily lives and integration into French society.  The acting is compelling and vulnerable with Srinivasan and Antonythasan in particular giving exceptional performances.  The only minor flaw with this film is watching Dheepan go fully over the edge, letting his PTSD completely take over.  At this point, the film becomes less thriller and more action movie, but Audiard is able to bring the character back into the now to once again be the empathetic protagonist that he is throughout the rest of the film.

A complex and powerful drama from director Jacques Audiard, Dheepan tells an important story of the traumatic aftermath of war, and the difficulties of rebuilding one’s life.


Leave a Reply