Jacques Audiard is a strict adherent to the notion of quality over quantity. A career now spanning more than two decades customarily sees “the French Scorsese” spend three to four years in the development of a project. His seventh feature, Dheepan, does not bristle and hum with the same kind of violent magnetism as A Prophet or Rust and Bone but retains their spellbinding lyricism. This is a more subdued, intimate picture, detailing the every day lives of three Sri Lankan refugees who exchange their war-torn homeland for the battleground of a French urban jungle. Though the director makes no ostensible claims of social commentary, this release into the current European climate makes for a timely and pertinent study.
Whilst complimentary, comparisons to American auteurs do a disservice to Audiard’s own brand of visionary filmmaking. Renowned for eliciting outstanding performances from unknown actors (as he famously did with Tahar Rahim), he often asks his audience to align sympathies with fairly reprehensible individuals. The eponymous spearhead of events here is a Tamil Tiger first seen burning his uniform along with fallen comrades. Supplied with false passports, he, a single woman, and an orphaned girl form an unorthodox family unit and are able to lie their way through French immigration.
An early visual flourish sees specks of multi-coloured light float in front of our eyes in pitch darkness. As they brighten and come into view we see them as flashing headbands and other tat that Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) attempts to flog to earn money to support his ‘wife’, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and ‘daughter’, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). Such enchanting, dreamlike techniques force our visual scrutiny and intrigue and strikingly loud sequences are cut short to deathly silence to ensure our ears are likewise engaged. Experiencing Dheepan is to be completely submerged on a sensory level.
Immortalised in the monochrome of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, the Paris suburbs are never painted in anything but a negative light and the unrelentingly dour autumn and winter conditions do nothing to brighten up the run-down, graffiti-clad building which becomes home for the immigrant family: Dheepan the new caretaker of a block controlled by a drug gang, Yalini a housekeeper to the catatonic uncle of their leader, Illayaal to a local school where she learns the French needed to teach and assist her parents. Standoffish at first, intimacy grows at a snail’s pace as tempers fly and a lid is just about kept on an essential secret. Moments of unexpected humour punctuate the daily grind but as in all his films Audiard keeps the threat of something catastrophic on a menacing simmer throughout. A late left turn in plausibility is difficult to swallow but it should not detract from the overall accomplishment of an understated tour de force.
The decision to award Dheepan the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival was met by vehement boos from some. It’s not a film that is intended to make you cheer, either, but as Dheepan stands at the window of his apartment looking out onto a world he struggles to comprehend, we sit in darkness looking through a screen at him. Audiard may not connect all the dots perfectly but there is an intensely thought-provoking humanism to his latest work that will resonate with all who see it.