Award-winning Dheepan on target

When first seen, the title character of Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan is building a funeral pyre for his fellow soldiers, killed in the latest skirmish during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Weary and wounded, both physically and mentally, he’s clearly had enough of violence and bloodshed.

As played by the writer Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, himself a refugee from Sri Lanka, it’s hard not to detect semi-autobiographical elements in Dheepan. In quick order, he recruits fellow refugees Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) to pose as his wife and daughter in the hopes that they can escape and establish a new life somewhere, anywhere, else.

Arriving in Paris, Dheepan and Yalini not only don’t speak the language but have no initial insight into the culture. As illegal immigrants, they must keep a low profile so as not to attract attention, which could result in deportation back to Sri Lanka.

Dheepan takes a job as caretaker for an apartment building lorded over by drug dealers, and soon realizes he has escaped one combat zone only to land in another – putting himself and his “family” into constant peril.

Audiard’s methodical pacing in the film’s first half is almost a reflection of the tentative and tenuous steps made by Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal to assimilate into their new surroundings. It’s a slow and careful process, but once the jeopardy is established Audiard adopts a more forceful tone. That he’s claimed in interviews he was inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) is enough of a hint as to what transpires.

Audiard coaxes fine performances out of his three leads, who have minimal acting experience (which also lends credibility to their collective plight), and from Vincent Rottiers as a drug dealer who takes an interest (rather an innocent one) in Yalini.

The film, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is effective and evocative, although its denouement is a little pat – particularly given the circumstances leading up to it. Nevertheless, Dheepan is a worthy and relevant film that offers food for thought on more than one level. (In French and Tamil with English subtitles) !