There was excitement and hope and murmurs that Youth or even Carol would win the coveted Palme d’Or for best picture in Cannes. So when the winner was finally announced, there were jeers in the press room. But there was also applause for Jacques Audiard and Dheepan, his first Cannes selection since 2012 and a 180-degree turn from Rust and Bone and the Oscar nominated The Prophet.
One of the most awarded French filmmakers and a regular of the Cannes circuit, Audiard has always been kaleidoscopic in his films, going from one style to another. While Dheepan is a good film, it is not a great one. Inspired by 18th century writer Montesquieu, Audiard depicts how foreigners see France, their life often a combat because they feel uprooted or displaced and completely challenged.
Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is not his real name. He was given the passport of a dead man in a refugee camp so he can enter France. A former Tamil warrior in Sri Lanka, he dreams of a better life in France and escapes the endless bloody civil war. And because having a family would facilitate getting a residential visa, he procures himself a fake wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a 9-year-old daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). But once they cross the French border, they must face barriers of a different kind, such as cultural differences and other obstacles that will remind them that their host country is not as utopic as it seemed thousands of miles away.
They settle in suburban Paris where he gets a job as a resident caretaker. He soon realizes that he escaped one war to land into another one in the “sensitive” suburb Le-Pré-Saint-Gervais, where housing projects are the territory of drug dealers. His “wife” also finds a job as a caretaker of an elderly infirm man, Monsieur Habib, who, despite his condition, has a “coffee shop” going on in his house. Dope dealers come and go and one of them, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), catches Yalini’s fancy.
While his “wife” is hanging out with common criminals, Dheepan fancies himself as a one-man Neighborhood Watch by attempting to ward off the petty criminals in their own courtyard. As for their “daughter” Illayal, she begins to get in trouble at school, which is more like a cry for affection. But Yalini is not quite ready to be another, especially to a child that is not her own.
And here Audiard takes another steep turn and runs in all directions. Yet he manages to transmit their despondency, the difficulty of being expatriates who once believed in the Eldorado that is the west. The casting is perfect, mainly because they are new to acting. Antonythasan Jesuthasan’s past as a former child soldier in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam helps in his interpretation of Dheepan and he gives a riveting, natural performance in what is only the second role of his new career as actor (he is a playwright and novelist and currently working on his second novel).
There were no credits on Dheepan at its screening simply because Jacques Audiard had just finished editing the film a couple of days before. Hopefully he will revisit the editing room to polish up the rough edges.