DHEEPAN: Remarkable Thriller Birthed From a War-torn Refugee Drama [Criterion Review]

It’s probably a bad idea to underestimate refugees.

After all, they’ve likely been through a lot more than the average citizen. And yet, marginalize and underestimate them we do. We strip away their names, stories, identities, and herd them like cattle. We all do it to one degree or another.

And French writer/director Jacques Audiard is smart enough to take our insecurities, guilt, racism, and disaffection, and turn it on us, unleashing a fairly blistering character piece that morphs into a nail biting thriller.

Putting faces and names to a very particular refugee experience, Dheepan tells the story of 3 Sri Lankan strangers who form a makeshift family and escape their war ravaged home by adopting the identities of a deceased family. At times we hear the true names of our characters, but this story requires them to adopt new names and identities for survival. Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) and Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) must pose as husband and wife, as well as the parents of Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). Not only must this makeshift family adjust to the challenges of a new culture in the slums of France, but they must maintain a false front and live into their forged identities. Misleadingly titled, Dheepan gives equal screentime to Yalini’s plight as a woman adjusting to life as a mother having never had a real child of her own. Illayaal’s attempts to adjust to a Western-style school is also compelling and authentic, if not given quite as much screen time. Regardless, these refugees who were desperate to escape war have hitched themselves to one another and must remain allied if they’re going to stay legal.

It’s probably time to mention that Dheepan is not just fleeing the war; he is himself a former child soldier and hardened veteran who took his one chance to escape and ran with it. Perhaps even more potent than the character is that novice actor Antonyhasan is himself a former child soldier, unafraid to display on screen the real life scars of his own experience of war.

As Dheepan settles into life as a maintenance man in a series of urban apartment projects, Yalini takes on a caretaker role for an elderly man whom the drug dealers and gangsters seem to have an unexplained deference for. The window of our family’s apartment provides a view into the crime-ridden squalor of the drug dens across the courtyard, and the tension simmers.

Never once displaying anything even remotely resembling fear, Dheepan is nevertheless shown to be vulnerable… finding newfound feelings for Yalini (with whom he conducts himself as a gentleman) even as he mourns the loss of his family who had died in the war. All three of our family members are given ample time in both script and on screen to feel dimensional. They’re resourceful people who are making a near-impossible situation work.

But war is a cancer. And it spreads. As much as Dheepan tries to escape his past, it comes calling for him. And when the leader of the gang across the courtyard returns from prison and returns to the apartment of his elderly relative where Yalini is working, a collision course between the gang, Yalini, and Dheepan is all but unavoidable. And let me tell you, when this aching character study boils over, it is riveting.

The viewer is so deeply invested in these characters and in their successful transition into life in France that the dynamite conclusion is heightened to a fever pitch. What I love about the action movie trappings of the final act of the film is that Dheepan is a man we’ve come to respect and admire and empathize with as a human being who’s seen too much. But we know there’s a badass inside of him because he’s never once feared the gangs across the yard. He’s even dismissive of them. He’s more afraid of the Western bureaucracy that has the power to strip away his new identity and send him back home than he is of the criminals next door who pose a physical threat he can’t be bothered with. As an action movie fanatic, I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see Dheepan compelled for a variety of reasons to finally confront the youthful gang, while at the same time having an almost blase contempt for them and their threats of violence. It’s breathtaking stuff that wouldn’t have been possible had Audiard not built up his main characters with such a relentless and unflinching authenticity.

The genre trappings of Dheepan are unquestionably what got me excited about watching and reviewing the film. They’re what excite me even now as I type. But more importantly, Audiard makes movie magic happen by putting flesh and bone on the immigrant experience and shaking audiences out of complacency regarding their plight. This isn’t misery porn, it’s a vision of interesting characters stretching themselves to their limits and making it work. It not only puts names and faces to a refugee family, it shows them to be resourceful and worthy of our respect and reverence.

Beyond the masterfully escalating story and dimensional character work, Dheepan simply soars as a motion picture. Young female cinematographer Éponine Momenceau lends formidable camera talent to the film. From sweeping drone shots to meditative soft focus moments, the camera is an important component to the success of the film. Composer Nicolas Jaar also contributes mightily to the narrative, offering an almost religious score to a film which feels largely grounded in harsh reality, but which does highlight the traditional faith of our characters.

Jacques Audiard is a filmmaker I’ve been highly interested in over the years, but still somehow haven’t experienced until Dheepan. This won’t be my last engagement with his work. Films like A Prophet and Rust And Bone have been highly praised and intriguing to me. And after falling head over heels for the Palme D’or winning Dheepan, he’ll be a personal filmmaker to watch from here on out.

The Package

Criterion put this remarkable release out with their high standard of excellence all over it. With eye-catching art throughout the package, a killer essay in the liner notes, a French-language commentary with Audiard and others, Dheepan is a no brainer blind buy for fans of Criterion, relevant drama, or edge-of-your-seat thrills.

The strongest bonus offerings on the disc are interviews with both writer/director Audiard, and star Antonyhasan. Both men are fascinating to listen to. Antonyhasan’s tale of war, immigration, and life as an author and artist who got swept up into movie stardom is truly singular. The pride he feels at representing his people and his country in a film seen around the world and which won the Palme D’or is palpable. Audiard is hugely endearing, rocking the scarfed Parisian look and seemingly embodying every French artist stereotype while at the same time offering true insight and nuance to the motivations and technique behind crafting this remarkable film.

And I’m Out.

Dheepan hits Criterion Blu-ray on May 23rd, 2017.

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