In Dheepan, Audiard does the very thing his characters are trying to avoid: he blows his cover.
Following the distinctive and structurally immaculate features A Prophet and Rust and Bone, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard returns with an uncharacteristically sloppy immigration drama. The ill-conceived Palme d’Or winner Dheepan attempts to re-create New Hollywood style under the auspices of a contemporary Eurocentric art picture. The results are crude and tonally askew, though its story of Sri Lankan refugees living in a French housing development aptly addresses notions of displacement and identity loss amid an unfavorable and unforgiving socioeconomic climate. It’s an interesting and increasingly important subject, as high numbers of Western and Southern Asian immigrants seek refuge in Europe and beyond. Unfortunately, Audiard spends the film’s entire runtime searching for and ultimately failing to muster a proper context.
The title character (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is a former member of the Tamil Tigers militant group who evades the fallout of being on the losing side of Sri Lanka’s civil war by stealing a dead guy’s identity and escaping to France. With him are Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young asylum-seeking woman who’s posing as his wife, and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), a nine-year-old orphan posing as their daughter. Once the newfound “family” receives temporary visas, they’re relocated to a particularly rough housing project in Paris’ northeast suburbs. There, Dheepan takes a job as a groundskeeper, while Yalini begins caring for a disabled former drug lord whose home in the complex also functions as a headquarters for local gang members. The project is nicknamed “the meadow,” but it’s more like a concrete jungle, filled with shadowy figures, tricky architecture and the relentless possibility of violence.
As the family tries to keep a low profile, Audiard focuses in part on the familiar aspects of the immigrant story, such as the language barriers and cultural misunderstandings that keep Dheepan and company from fully engaging with their new surroundings. But he also details the unique conflicts that come with living and working incognito; elements of spy fiction give a well-worn genre a much welcomed boost. The film’s sharpest and most insightful scenes detail how even a fake couple have to contend with issues of matrimony and parenting; the latter of which provides some truly emotional stakes as the fragile Illayaal lashes out at school and craves the sort of love and emotional support neither “parent” is prepared to offer her. Each person here has a role, which in turn begets another role, and because their roleplaying is directly tied to their personal safety, the idea of contributing to a family or a society becomes a point of stress rather than a point of pride, a heartbreaking notion visible on the principal casts’ worn faces and somber spirits. (The story is partially based on Jesuthasan’s own experiences as a former child soldier.)
These are satisfying sequences, but Audiard seems impatient. With the help of co-screenwriters Noe Debre and Thomas Bidegain, the director telegraphs Dheepan’s unsettling identity switch from the browbeaten immigrant he is and the coldblooded solider he was. Obviously, he’s both; it’s highly possible—some might say completely natural—to adopt a sort of cross-cultural and even cross-personal identity when circumstances have stripped one of a traditional cultural experience. But Audiard seems to think of this transformation—perhaps he considers it a regression—as less of a natural occurrence and more of a societal inevitability, the product of simply swapping one war zone for another. Appropriately enough, Audiard seems to think he can swap one movie for another as Dheepan abruptly switches from Dardennes-esque social realism to blood-soaked, Death Wish fantasia, delivering on a wild yet half-formed revenge fantasy that openly channels the ultraviolence and troubling euphoria of Taxi Driver’s famous epilogue.
The whole thing feels labored in a way we’re not used to seeing with Audiard. His previous work is polished and thorough, but you’ve never seen the guy sweat. As much as he is a perfectionist, he also clearly reveres the fast and loose swagger of Scorsese in the ‘70s. His greatest skill as a filmmaker is his ability to make formal rigor seem effortless and off-the-cuff. Here, he strains through nearly every scene, grasping for profundity and emotional weight while hoping to maintain a casual and understated rhythm. Violence is the connective tissue that binds these conflicting ideas, and when the story boils over to a sort delirious melee that surpasses even Scorsese at his wildest, his conceit is unmasked. In Dheepan, Audiard does the very thing his characters are trying to avoid: he blows his cover.