With his last four films (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, and Rust and Bone) Jacques Audiard has slowly revealed himself to be one of the best directors working in not just French, but all, cinema today. What you might call an auteur.
I was all set to catch his new Palme d'Or winning film Dheepan and was extra pleased that my mate Shep, who has taken an interest in Sri Lankan affairs since a visit there some years back, was keen to join me.
Dheepan himself, played by Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, is a Tamil fighter who, having fled the fighting after seeing way too much death, teams up with a woman a few years younger than him, Yalini (Kalieswari Srinivasan), and a nine year old girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), in a refugee camp. There they pretend to be family so they can claim asylum in France. Despite Yalini's preference for moving to the UK to be with her sister.
In France they move into a scarily run down estate blatantly scarred by violence and with no trace of any police, and barely any other women and children. All three of them struggle with even basic French but still Dheepan takes a job as a caretaker whilst Illayaal enrols, with some difficulties, into a local school, and Yalini finds work cooking and cleaning for Monsieur Habib (Faouzi Bensaidi). A severely disabled man who is unable to talk and gives his spare room over to a gang of obvious ne'er-do-wells.
Yalini's very good at her job. Dheepan's reasonable at his. Even Illayaal starts to get on well at school. Homelife's not so easy however as the lines between pretend and real family blur. Both in reality and in their minds.
During this 'family' drama stage of the film there are some incredibly touching moments. All the cast are great but Srinivasan portrays her character's mix of confusion, humanity, and fierce independence so winningly it's heart-warming.
Just as things seem to be improving for them Monsieur Habib's son Brahim returns and a turf war in and around the estate escalates. Dheepan can't help being drawn in. As if he's become instituionalized by the violence he'd seen, and been involved in, in Sri Lanka. It appears the film is making parallels between a Sri Lankan civil war and gang violence in the Parisian suburbs but the latter seems to lack any political dimension whatsoever.
Hence it's often a little confusing what's happening but I think and hope Audiard is trying to show us how this lifestyle must feel for outsiders trying to escape their own desperate circumstances.
Vincent Rottiers who plays Brahim is wonderful. At turns utterly terrifying and then concerned with Yalini's wellbeing. He's like a timebomb waiting to explode but then so many of the characters are. Both those central and peripheral to the narrative.
To say any more would be getting into spoiler territory but it's a fascinating, if flawed, and absorbing piece of film making. Nicolas Jaar's score is effective and only intrusive when necessary. There's a couple of background storylines that don't bring much to the party and, after a promising start, Vinasithamby is a little underused.
It's pretty violent for a 15 certificate but even though the film depicts lifestyles that glamourise violence the violence itself always feels brutal, scary, and, quite often, utterly random.
Like every other Audiard film I've seen I'd recommend. This time with some minor reservations.