Most of the reviews of Dheepan (and some ‘comment pieces’) have been concerned with one or other – or both – of two issues. The first concerns the fact that the film won the Palme d’Or and the second that the narrative suddenly escalates into extreme violence and an unconvincing or even ‘ludicrous’ ending. Since I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the narrative with the film still on release in the UK, it’s difficult to tackle these issues in detail. I’ll tread carefully.
I’m not that bothered by who wins the big prize at Cannes but it is interesting to discuss what possible criteria the jury might use and to think about what impact winning the prize has on subsequent distribution and reception of the winning film. Jacques Audiard has experienced a gradually rising profile as a director since his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall) in 1994. He’s produced just seven features in 21 years – an indication of the care he takes with each one. Before 1994 he was known primarily as a screenwriter. The films are not all the same in terms of their genre elements, although he has been seen as following his father, the screenwriter/director Michel Audiard, in helping to keep alive the French action/crime genre, the polar. I’ve enjoyed all of Audiard’s films but the two most interesting and powerful, for me, have been A Self-Made Hero (1996) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). The first is a postmodern comedy-fantasy which investigates the myth of ‘Resistance’ in France during and immediately after the Second World War. The second is a re-working of James Toback’s US film Fingers from 1978 in which a young thug running a property racket tries to return to being a classical pianist like his dead mother. There are some elements of both these films in Dheepan. But there are also elements of Un prophète (2009), the film that really gave Audiard ‘lift-off’ and I suspect that for some audiences it is that film and the next, Rust and Bone (2012), that first come to mind in thinking about Audiard – and therefore in thinking about his Cannes prize film.
The Palme d’Or seems to me to go every now and again to an American film, including fairly mainstream genre films if the director is seen as ‘special’ in some way (Tarantino, Michael Moore, The Coen Brothers). Mostly it goes to one of a group of international auteurs. French winners are often controversial (e.g. Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013). I suspect that Dheepan for some is not the art film they might be expecting. And part of that expectation might be that it will in some way be a social-realist account of migration from Sri Lanka and how refugees attempt to build new lives in a new country. There are French films that do this in some ways and there is a Cannes precedent with prizes for the Dardenne Brothers and The Silence of Lorna (Belgium-France 2008). But Dheepan is not that kind of film.
Plot Outline (no spoilers)
‘Dheepan’ played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a former ‘Tamil Tiger’ soldier who in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka has to construct a new identity. He finds a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn finds a 9 year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The three strangers become a family for the NGO officials and eventually arrive in France where Dheepan is found a job as a caretaker on a run-down estate in the outer suburbs of Paris. The new arrivals struggle to adapt but Dheepan is resourceful and good at his job and Yalini eventually gets a job outside the home. Tensions within the family group are inevitable. Yalini wants to join her cousin in the UK, but she must wait for a passport. Dheepan has nightmares and dreams of an elephant with mottled skin moving through the forest in Sri Lanka. The estate has strict rules and one block is controlled by a drugs gang. But when a local man returns from custody his presence is disruptive. This signals the build-up to conflict. Will the three Tamils survive the violence which seems inevitable?
Not social realism?
In suggesting that this narrative is not about social realism, I’m suggesting the following ‘absences’ from what might be expected of a social realist drama. There are few, if any, signs of the agents of the French state. The ‘family’ arrives in France and travels to Paris in a swift montage of short scenes after they present themselves in the refugee camp. On the estate they deal only with Youssef who appears to be a community leader of some sort (who may well be employed by the state, but isn’t a designated ‘official’). They speak to someone who assigns Illayaal to a special class for non-French speaking children, but gradually Illayaal’s schooling becomes a less important part of the narrative. I thought at first this was a weakness, but on reflection Dheepan decides very early on that the child is Yalini’s responsibility. This is basically Dheepan’s narrative – like four of the other six of Audiard’s films it is a male narrative, although here it is the single older male rather than the ‘father/son’ structure of the other four. When the violence kicks off there are no police to be seen – they never seem to come out to the estate at all. Add to this Dheepan’s nightmares/dreams about the elephant and the film’s resolution – which may be a fantasy, but which anyway is ‘open-ended’ in its meaning. The only scenes ‘off’ the estate and its environs are set during celebrations for the local Tamil/Hindu diaspora and this features a further part of Dheepan’s story when he meets an exiled leader of the Tamil Tigers.
There are some ‘procedural’ aspects of the drama. We see Dheepan working very effectively as a caretaker. We also see Yalini succeeding at her job. Both of these sequences are important functional plot elements – they help to explain how/why the final events occur. However, I think the most important elements refer to Dheepan and his state of mind. Some reviews criticise the film because it seems ‘unrealistic’ and doesn’t explore the migrant/refugee ‘issue’. Even the highly-respected French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau refers to these two points in her Sight and Sound review. More problematic for me is the Guardian film blog ‘commentary’ by Caspar Salmon entitled ‘Why Dheepan’s take on immigration isn’t helpful‘. Salmon argues that the film doesn’t represent the reality of life on le cité, the Parisian housing estate. But what we see is essentially what Dheepan sees from his perspective as a former Tamil Tiger. He isn’t representative of most refugees in France, he’s a trained fighter and battle-hardened. He acts from within that mindset. Whether the estate itself is depicted in a ‘realistic’ manner I can’t say but there are certain parallels with La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014), both of which stylise the buildings and the community to some extent. I’m willing to accept that there aren’t likely to be as many firearms around on a real estate but that isn’t really relevant here. Audiard has created an exciting drama which pitches an ex-guerilla fighter against local youths. As one of the comments on Salmon’s piece points out, if this was a criterion for artistic success we never accept most gangster or police procedural stories on film and television.
I’d like to watch the film again before trying to evaluate the film’s success but I’m already convinced that it was a brave decision to go with this story. The three leads have relatively little experience. Srinivasan is from a theatre background in Chennai and Jesuthasan was a boy soldier with the Tamil Tigers before moving to France via Thailand and gaining political asylum aged 25. He has worked in a variety of jobs in France, became a political activist and has developed into an accomplished published author (see Press Kit). The leads all speak Tamil – but all slightly differently (Claudine was born in France). Audiard says that he allowed them to improvise on set – something he might not have done with French-speaking actors. He says he came across the small Tamil community in Paris and wanted to make a ‘Tamil action film’. He argues that it was particularly interesting to explore the world of refugees not associated with French colonialism – although France did have a colony actually situated in Tamil Nadu in the shape of Pondicherry/Puducherry. More convincing is Audiard’s decision to look for new characters and new stories outside the traditional polar. (See interviews with Audiard by Jonathan Romney and Danny Leigh.) Audiard’s next challenge appears to be an English language feature. I’m ambivalent about that decision but I’ll continue to watch his films based on the experience so far.