[This is a re-post of my Dheepan review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release today.]
Sometimes it takes a film as bracingly honest and deeply empathetic as Dheepan to remind us how limited our world truly is. Director Jacques Audiard’s latest film sits down next to people who have been pushed to the margins of society and simply wants to listen to their story without judgment or agenda. Audiard puts us on the edge of the knife with a makeshift family and relates a story that’s both unique yet depressingly commonplace. Rather than try and craft a call-to-arms in support of refugees, Dheepan is a deeply moving tale about human relationships crafted in the crucible of broken lives and trying to survive as a nuclear family when the past has been destroyed and the future could be demolished at any moment.
Sivadhasan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is a rebel soldier in Sri Lanka who flees to France with the assumed named “Dheepan” along with a fake family that includes fellow refugee Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and 9-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) who pretend to be his wife and daughter. Dheepan is able to find work as a caretaker at a housing complex that’s run by criminals, but he keeps his head down and Yalini is able to find work cooking and cleaning for an elderly invalid who lives in one of the building. While they all have some trouble adapting, the trio manages to find some semblance of peace, but it could all come crashing down, especially with the brewing violence that surrounds them.
Although tragedy never seems far off, Audiard is content to simply hang around with his protagonists and watch them live their day-to-day lives. We’re always conscious of the threats—it’s in every close-up of a drug dealer or warning from Dheepan’s boss about where he shouldn’t go—but this isn’t a crime story as much as it’s a refugee story where criminals play a predominant role because of realistic circumstances. It’s a movie about people who live at the margins of society. Dheepan isn’t interested in joining a gang or having anything to do with the criminal dealings at the apartments. He just wants to make a living and maybe find some semblance of peace with Yalini and Illayaal even if their unique arrangement is born out of mutually beneficial circumstances rather than any genuine affection towards each other.
Dheepan lets us live in this fascinating middle ground with characters who lack status. Their pasts are tragic, their presents are forged, and their futures are precarious at best. Audiard isn’t trying to deliver an uplifting, feel-good story about the refugee experience and triumphing over all odds. Dheepan and Yalini are deeply flawed and at times even outright unlikable people, but they’re survivors who never call attention to how they’re struggling to survive. The matter-of-fact attitude of everyone involved provides the film with some refreshing honesty and Audiard never exploits the circumstances for dramatic effect. He cares about Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayaal as individuals, and he trusts his audiences to understand that their stories also have some relationship to refugee stories in general.
It’s a difficult line to walk, but empathy carries Dheepan through time and again. Audiard is fascinated by the mundane survival his characters must endure, and while the ending is a bit too sensational relative to the subdued affair of what’s come before, it at least makes sense for Dheepan’s character arc. Mostly we see the barriers of language, religion, and personal loss that have closed these characters off from each other and from their surroundings, and yet have also brought them closer together. While it may all be tenuous at best—at one point Yalini openly chastises Dheepan for embracing the façade and asks him if he truly believed in a nice story of a nuclear family—it’s something worth holding onto.
Dheepan isn’t a plot-driven narrative, but it’s still constantly compelling thanks to Audiard’s thoughtful direction, Antonythasan powerful lead performance, and because the film cares so deeply about its characters. Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayaal are the people society tends to ignore, and by putting the camera squarely on their lives, Dheepan shows us souls well worth remembering and stories that demand to be heard.