Welcome to a new column on movies released by the Criterion Collection. Our first column will look at Jacques Audiard’s 2015 film ‘Dheepan,’ which was released on Blu-ray in May 2017.
French filmmaker Jacques Audiard established himself on the international scene with 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which he followed up with the brutal prison drama A Prophet in 2009. After working with Marion Cotillard in 2012’s Rust and Bone, Audiard went in a completely different direction with 2015’s Dheepan, which was on the 2015 Plame D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Incredible performances from its two leads, with a non-professional in the title role, are one of the film’s highlights.
Dheepan is a unique take on the immigrant and refugee story. Former Tamil Tiger soldier Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) escapes the Sri Lankan Civil War with a “fake” family. He is joined by Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young woman desperate to leave, and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), a nine-year-old girl whose real mother is dead. They arrive in Paris and end up living in a housing project called Le Pré, the French word for “Meadow.” But it turns out to be anything but a peaceful meadow, as the place is really run by drug dealers.
The first three quarters of the film is an exploration of how difficult it is for an immigrant to fit into their new surroundings. There are people willing to help, like the schoolteacher (Joséphine de Meaux) and Youssouf (Marc Zinga), but the hooligans look upon Dheepan and his “family” as outsiders begging to be ridiculed. Making things worse is Dheepan’s struggle to turn the three Sri Lankans into a family unit, when Yalini has no interest in it. There’s a brief love story here, as Dheepan and Yalini appear to be getting along just fine, but then it all shatters when violence finally arrives.
For the most part, it feels like not much is going on – the three immigrants go about their daily lives and attempt to fit in. Audiard begins shifting gears when Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), a convicted leader of one gang whose father is being cared for by Yalini, enters the picture. The director slowly begins ramping up the tension, but not so quickly yet that it suddenly feels like you’re thrown into a different movie. Audiard and co-writers Noé Debré and Thomas Bidegain begin really pushing the gas with 20 minutes left in the film, when Dheepan’s soldier habits kick in high gear to defend his makeshift family.
Unfortunately, that ending feels so rushed, as if Audiard wanted to get the movie under two hours, but couldn’t sacrifice his slow-burn build-up to it. Instead of treating the climax with the same care and slow pace that dominated the first chunk of the film, Audiard slams down on the gas without giving us time to digest the sudden tonal shift.
The best part of the film is its cast. Antonythasan Jesuthasan, an author and poet who had only appeared in a little-seen Indian film before this, is devastating and powerful as Dheepan. Jesuthasan doesn’t have to pretend to be Dheepan, since he was that character in real life. A former Tamil soldier himself, he also fled Sri Lanka.
In an interview on the Criterion disc, he says he first lived in hiding in Thailand for three years before he made it to France, where he lives today. Kalieaswari Srinivasa, a stage actress who hadn’t made a movie before, is also impressive as Yalini, wearing the character’s desperation on her face. So much of what these characters do is done without dialogue, making their performances all the more impressive. Their emotions are laid bare, and Audiard’s direction let’s their performances breathe.
As a recent film, Dheepan looks wonderful in the video department. It is a dark film, with a quiet soundtrack. The music by Nicolas Jaar is sparse, only used to accentuate dramatic moments in the film. Most of the film’s dialogue is in Tamil, further isolating Dheepan and his “family” from French society. Or course, there is English subtitles, which can be turned off if you’d like to see cinematographer Eponine Momenceau’s images without words at the bottom of the screen.
Criterion’s releases of new films are typically not filled to the brim with bonus material, and that’s the case here. Audiard and Jesuthasan sat down for new interviews, each providing context for how they approached the film. Since Criterion didn’t include any documentaries about the Sri Lankan Civil War, which lasted over 25 years and didn’t end until 2009, Jesuthasan’s also serves as historical background.
Other extras are ported over from previous French home video releases of Dheepan. Audiard and co-writer Noe Debre provide French-language commentaries for the film and a nine-minute collection of deleted sequences.
While Dheepan is a gripping film for the most part, there’s a reason why some booed when it was announced as the winner of Cannes’ top award in 2015. At the last possible moment, Audiard tries to turn this darkly serious political and social film into an action movie, complete with slow motion and smoke-filled images of a gun-toting hero firing away. Dheepan should still be seen at least once, to get a better understanding of the difficult experience facing refugees around the world, but it’s hard to see why anyone would want to revisit it.