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Dheepan [AFI FEST 2015]
IFC Films // Unrated // November 8, 2015
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Afi]
Often times, the top prize of the Cannes Film Festival (titled the Palme d'Or) is given to a feature that received a lot of buzz throughout the duration of the event. Many were quite surprised that a movie that went relatively under-the-radar called Dheepan managed to take home the top honor. Following the festival details from the comfort of my own home, I was excited to see what writer/director Jacques Audiard would bring us next. After seeing the masterwork that is A Prophet and the emotionally intense Rust and Bone, I have been anticipating his next project for quite some time now. Dheepan is certainly different than anything that he has made previously, and yet it still manages to be a winner.
After a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) loses his wife and children in the war, he seeks to flee. He meets a woman named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and an abandoned young girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who he ultimately must form a faux family with in order to find a better life in France. He ends up working as a caretaker for territory that is entirely dominated by gangs, as he tries to establish a new life for himself and two complete strangers that he must treat as wife and daughter.
The topic of immigration continues to be a critical subject that will always be relevant, which is a theme that Audiard and co-writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré greatly incorporate. A large portion of the running time is spent as three individuals escape their hostile home in pursuit of happiness in France. Illayall speaks a small amount of French, while Dheepan and Yalini don't speak it at all. This is a very real obstacle that many immigrants must overcome, as they struggle to learn a new language and assimilate within a new society. The screenplay does an excellent job in building these three characters, as we watch them evolve within a new culture that they aren't familiar with. While an ominous tone hangs above every frame, most of Dheepan is a relatively quiet drama that tackles some serious issues in a very smart manner. Dheepan and Yalini are explored quite a bit more than young Illayaal, although they are all portrayed as real people with strengths and weaknesses. We come to care greatly for each of them, even despite Dheepan's violent nature and Yalini's initial selfish motives.
Once they leave Sri Lanka, the story never returns there. However, we progressively learn more about Dheepan and Yalini in particular as the story unfolds. The war that Dheepan fought in and the losses that he has suffered weigh on him heavily. We're never given many details about what he has seen, but the screenplay does a brilliant job alluding to the fact that he has gone through some horrific situations that have forever scarred him mentally. This family naturally becomes closer over time, as they begin to genuinely care for one another's well-being. While they seem safe for a while, the dangers that lurk around every corner of their gang-infested land threaten everything that they have rebuilt. Audiard inserts some brilliant sub-text regarding people having to face their own demons. The very same fears and dangers have followed them into another country, except this time, they can't escape it. They must confront their troubles head on, and the stakes are high.
The first two acts completely had me captivated, although the majority of the film's issues can be found in the third act. Those who have seen A Prophet understand how Audiard can masterfully intertwine drama with moments of shocking violence. Well, he incorporates some of these techniques in Dheepan's conclusion, which ultimately feels a bit out of place, rather than integral to the story, as it was in his previously mentioned film. The screenplay practically abandons all development found in Illayaal's character in pursuit of a violent climax meant to contrast with the film's quieter elements. In the final few moments before the credits start rolling, we're provided with an odd scene that feels borderline unnecessary. These are issues that stuck with me, but Dheepan does a lot more right than it does wrong, making them a bit easier to forgive.
Despite the three leads having little to no acting experience whatsoever, they all manage to turn in impressive performances that really helped in bringing the film to life. Jesuthasan Antonythasan is great as Dheepan. He brings out many of the subtleties of the character's PTSD in a way that is incredibly effective. This is a relatively quiet performance, but he surely makes the most out of every movement of body language in order to make this role jump right off the screen. Kalieaswari Srinivasan is mostly good as Yalini, although a couple of the dramatic scenes could have been improved upon. Otherwise, she steals the spotlight quite often, as she handles the character transitions with a certain grace that feels very grounded. Even young Claudine Vinasithamby delivers a worthwhile performance as Illayaal. She pulls off what many other young actors fail to do: convince the audience that she's actually a kid.
While it's far from his best work, Dheepan is another strong film to come from writer/director Jacques Audiard. It features a strong story with relevant themes and motifs from the perspective of well-written characters. They are all grounded in their portrayals, as they're introduced with both their strengths and weaknesses as human beings. Dheepan's PTSD is a clear sub-text that remains the right amount of subtle throughout the film until it comes to a head in the final act. While the sudden violence has worked for him before, Audiard's use of it here isn't as effective. Nevertheless, this remains to be a strong film with quite the impact. Dheepan is a compelling crime drama that hits almost all of the right notes. Highly recommended!
Dheepan will be playing at AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi on November 8th and November 10th.