Not much has been heard from Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan since it won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, beating out pictures like Todd Haynes’ Carol, László Nemes’ Son of Saul and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. But going into this understated film cold isn’t a bad way to experience it, for it thrives on uncertainty.
In the opening scenes, a woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) desperately searches through a Tamil refugee camp in Sri Lanka, looking for an orphaned girl — any orphaned girl. Locating one such child (Claudine Vinasithamby), she whisks her away to a small office, where the two of them join a man (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) and pose as his wife and daughter. The three of them don’t know each other, but they’ve just been given passports belonging to a dead family, which will allow them to leave the war-torn country. Waiting for the boat, they discover they’re headed to France. The man’s name will be Dheepan, the woman’s name Yalini, and the girl’s Illayaal. His real name is Sivadhasan; we never learn the others’. And just like that, within a few minutes, they have their new identities and destination. Now they must pretend to know and love and care for one another in a foreign land where they don’t even speak the language.
That sense of imbalance, the idea of the ground constantly shifting under these characters — and, by extension, the audience — plays to director Audiard’s strengths, to the emotional intimacy of his camera and the urgency with which he relays immediate experience. Constantly in danger of being found out, this makeshift family has to keep everything close. Even the smallest interaction becomes a challenge of sorts. And though they may have left their battle-scarred land, chaos still surrounds them.
When they move into a gang-riddled housing project, where Dheepan/Sivadhasan finds work as caretaker, it feels as if they’ve left one war for another: Lookouts on roofs patrol the area, kids with bats man the doors, and the nights light up with yelling, music, and gunshots. Yalini gets a job taking care of an elderly, invalid resident whose son, recently freed from prison, appears to be the local drug kingpin. She has quiet conversations in broken French with the younger man, but it’s clear that if something goes wrong, he might have her killed in an instant.
The man now known as Dheepan was an officer in the insurgent separatist group the Tamil Tigers during the Sri Lankan civil war, and lost everything: his soldiers as well as his wife and children. (A brief pre-credits sequence shows him burning a group of bodies, all neatly arranged on a makeshift pyre, and changing out of his uniform.) Maybe that’s why he begins to treat this pretend family like a real one, as he slowly falls for Yalini and starts to care for Illayaal the way he might for a daughter. “You’d abandon her?” he asks when Yalini threatens to leave for England, where her cousin lives. “What do you think?” she asks, bewildered, realizing that he’s bought into “the whole fairy tale.” She wants a better life. He wants a better conscience.
Audiard doesn’t show us much of what these characters went through in their former lives — the temptation for harrowing flashbacks must have been huge — but we still see the effects. Dheepan briefly visits with his former commander, who’s lost his mind and thinks he’s still giving orders. When a teacher asks Dheepan's “daughter” why she's not in school back in Sri Lanka, the girl replies calmly that the government burned it down. Yalini, meanwhile, mentions that she had two younger brothers back home. The look in her eyes makes it clear that she need not say any more about what happened to them.
So the past is never far. And as the situation at the housing project gets more tense, Dheepan’s instinct for confrontation and talent for war start to resurface. That also means that the film gradually, and perhaps unfortunately, drifts from a story of immigration and alienation to something more familiar, maybe even schematic. That’s not entirely unexpected; Audiard has always had the heart of a genre filmmaker, tempered with the eyes of a behavioralist. He gets in close to his characters — focusing on their faces, their hands, their feet — so that we feel every blow and quiver, every scream and whisper.
With that immediacy also comes a kind of unreality, however — a dreamy disconnect. In the film’s violent, even explosive climax, the camera fixes on the characters so thoroughly that while we can see everything that happens on their faces, we can’t always see what’s actually happening around them. That idea of being thoroughly in touch with the senses while being separated from the self, however, turns out to be an apt stylistic correlative. Ultimately, Dheepan is the story of three people struggling to maintain their humanity, even as they lose their identities.