Jacques Audiard makes art cinema disguised as genre flicks, and vice-versa. Each of his most recent three films hum with energy, feeding the catechisms of classic genre structures and tropes into the maw of sociopolticially acute cinéma and vice-versa, kinetic Ouroboroi of old guard and avant garde. In that case, Dheepan is his Western, but a transcendental one. Is violent redemption redemption at all? Is any redemption redemption? Dheepan takes on grand themes with a deceptively direct confidence that belies the incredible and detailed depth of thought and design that underlies something that feels so organic. George Martin says that there are two types of writers, gardeners and architects; Jacques Audiard’s films are a retort, insisting that greatness is found where the two intersect.
Dheepan is not about Dheepan; it’s about Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan, an actual ex-Tiger and asylee IRL), who decides being on the losing side of a civil war is a good, and urgent, reason to leave Sri Lanka. Joining up with faux-wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and faux-daughter Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), their own lives brutalized by conflict, they depart for France, with Sivadhasan using a passport that belonged to the now-dead man whose name gave the film it’s title. It’s about identity, yes, but more than that about being haunted by violent, senseless loss.
“Dheepan” and “family” find their way to Le Pré, northeast of Paris, where he gets a job caretaking for the dismal, Le Corbusier-esque development of soulless towers guarding a soulless plaza. Yalini takes care of the debilitated father (Faouzi Bensaïdi) of local drug gang big man Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), and Illayaal goes to a school (which promptly puts her in special needs). None of it works, until it does; and all of it seems like it’s going to work out, until it really, really doesn’t.
For a filmmaker as explosive as Audiard, he thrives when finding beauty in small moments, drawing out meaning in the subtlest touches. Nothing I’ve seen in cinema in quite so long a time expresses so much about alienation, division, and the challenge of empathy and understanding as the way, in a simple conversation, between two characters, subtitles vanish and re-appear as the camera cuts back and forth between a Tamil speaker and a Francophone listener. When Dheepan inevitably descends (ascends?) into violence – violence that Audiard is consistently better than almost any filmmaker alive at filming with purpose, with meaning, with horror and beauty alike, even though he never films it twice the same way – it has exceptional power because of the verisimilitude and the graceful smallness of what came before. Whether it’s Yalini telling Sivadhasan that’s it’s not the French who aren’t funny, it’s him; whether it’s them finding their way to a level of comfort, then something more than comfort, then something much less, or whether it’s simply Illayaal insisting Yalini treat her like one would treat a sibling, Dheepan is deeply invested in its characters, its setting, and all the various strands of meaning they entangle, all of which are so, so loaded.
Comparisans to Peckinpah and Scorsese are easy, and fruitful, but to me Dheepan is in some ways reminiscent of one of the most fascinating and misunderstood periods in the oeuvre of one of our most talented but challenging filmmakers – Steven Spielberg’s early ‘00s. These were dark films – at least as dark as Spielberg could be – and each involved a protagonist in flight, one who found themselves crawling through the worst things they could imagine before finding themselves in sudden, unexpected, and perhaps otherwordly grace. Dheepan’s celestial (is it?) conclusion harkens to this, and yet it’s more ambiguous tone, following the blood and fire in corridors that preceded it, also harkens to Barton Fink, and it’s no surprise it was the Brothers Coen who led this film to the Palme D’Or. In a year where it looks like the rent-seeking, bloated CGI slugfest that purports to be about civil war is the rent-seeking, bloated CGI slugfest that will Win the Box Office, cashing easy checks at a bank slowly being swallowed by a sinkhole, Dheepan is a film that’s actually about actual civil war – about PTSD, about what it means to have one’s whole family die, about alcohol and violence and what one can and can’t, should and must do to rebuild a broken life. Too trite to call something so timeless timely, too blithe to call something so timely timeless, call it, simply, awesome in the most timeless sense of the word. I am in awe.