Director: Jacques Audiard
Stars: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby
Rating: * * * ½
One of the many admirable qualities of Jacques Audiard’s filmography is his willingness to examine France’s multiculturalism – the Vietnamese piano teacher in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Tahir Rahim’s French-Arab protagonist in A Prophet – and never more so than in his latest effort. To escape war-torn Sri Lanka, Tamil fighter Dheepan (Antonyhasan, himself a former Tamil Tiger turned acclaimed writer), a desperate local woman Yalini (Srinivasan) and a nine-year-old orphan (Vinasithamby) form an impromptu family and are shipped out to a Paris banlieue. Strangers to one another, family unity strains under the duress of impoverished assimilation into a foreign land. And gang activity within their powder keg tower block home threatens to bring a different, if achingly familiar, outbreak of warfare and violence.
It’s hard to avoid a certain strand of social realist cinema given the film’s setting and protagonists, but Audiard exhibits commendable restraint in not soapboxing this issue, instead letting almost everything unfold through his fascinating characters. Despite Antonythasan’s impressive performance, titling the film Dheepan is in fact a misnomer given how essential Srinivasan’s Yalini is to the overall piece; her anger and frustration at having to adopt to a mother role she never wanted is gripping and very moving.
The notion of fleeing, but never really escaping, war is central here, the way Audiard keeps cutting back to a freckled elephant impassively biding its time in the jungle. Such carefully chosen stylistic flourishes work well until, that is, an overwrought climax that feels as if it’s strong-armed its way in from another movie altogether (I’m talkin’ to you, Taxi Driver), compounded by a coda that, though welcome in content, glibly bypasses the family’s documented struggles. It’s not enough to fully negate the tough, empathetic portrait we’ve witnessed thus far but does elicit the nagging feeling that, by following his heart, Audiard skips the beats his own story seems to demand.