In his interview and commentary included in the new Criterion Collection edition of Dheepan, director Jacques Audiard talks about the many refugees around the world, saying that they have lived two or three more lives than the rest of us. Dheepan, which won the 2015 Palme d’Or is a powerful and timely evocation of these multiple lives, and how it can cause one to question what is real, what is a dream, what is a nightmare, and to understand that all of it goes into making and unmaking a person’s identity.
The film begins toward the end of the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war. Our central character is a survivor of the conflict named Sivadhasan, played by author and non-professional actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who was also a Tamil soldier and refugee. We meet Sivadhasan at the beginning as he watches many of his fellow soldiers’ corpses burning in the night. Here we also meet a woman, played by Kalieaswari Srinivasan, running around a refugee camp asking children if their parents are with them. Finally finding a young girl who has lost most of her familial connections, played by Claudine Vinasithamby, the woman makes her way to a tent where Sivadhasan, she, and the young girl take on the identities of a dead family. They are now Dheepan, husband; Yalini, wife; and Illayaal, daughter. They are ready to transition to their next life, having lost everything in Sri Lanka.
Together they journey to Paris. At the beginning of this new life, each is more or less in it for him or herself only. They play their respective roles only when necessary and look at each other more as co-workers. But things start to feel real again, and they can drift a little bit into this new fantasy. Dheepan becomes the caretaker of the rough tenement building across the way. Yalini takes care of an incapacitated elderly man. Illayaal goes to school, asking Yalini to give her a kiss on the cheek as the other parents do.
The actors, though non-professional, are tremendous. They play the parts of the dislocated and fractured wonderfully, and it’s fun and heartbreaking to see them begin to hope again, to start to believe in their new life.
But not all is well with their new life. The tenement building serves as the headquarters of a gang of drug dealers, and the old man’s apartment is where they have many of their meetings or where they simply relax a bit. In particular, the leader of the gang, the young Brahim, played by the penetrating gaze of Vincent Rottiers, provides a discomforting mix of domesticity and danger.
Dheepan and Yalini do their best to pretend that this new violent world cannot touch them. After all, they’ve been through so much worse. Sometimes at night the gang gets a bit wild out on the lawn, probably due to some successful strike earlier in the day. Dheepan and Yalini watch from their window, which Yalini suggests is like watching the drama play out on television. Meanwhile, at night, Dheepan gets on his computer and watches the news reports covering the violence occurring in a no-fire zone, showing that distance is all a matter of perspective. Later in the film, after his “family” is put at risk by the gang’s violence, he paints a white line between the tenement buildings and yells to the gang that his side is a no-fire zone, as if such barriers can really stop the violence from reaching them and taking over their new, pretend/real lives.
These lines or planes of glass, these permeable barriers, work well with Dheepan‘s style and structure. There are moments when the imagery and film shifts from social-realism (like the films of the Dardenne brothers) to dream imagery. For example, in a beautiful but disconcerting moment, a pair of motorbikes drive through a tunnel. When they reach the other side and the sun floods the frame again, the film becomes oversaturated for an extended shot, making it look like the motorbikes are floating. The film’s climax includes a lot of smoke and slow motion.
Such effects blur the lines and they also serve as liminal, transitional spaces. They often appear when a character is about to find themselves in a new kind of life (though the old life may surge at unexpected or even inconvenient times), or, perhaps most surprisingly and controversially with Dheepan, when the audience finds themselves watching a new kind of movie.
There are some detractors of Dheepan who find the film’s structure to be problematic, as if Audiard simply could not resist moving from social realism, to dreamscape, to thriller, and back again, but I found it all incredibly effective as an exploration of what it must be like to have to keep reinventing one’s own narrative. Dheepan deserves our attention for its timeliness but also for Audiard’s curious but powerful choices.