Dheepan: Things Fall Apart

It’s a movie that snaps you to attention right out of the gate, rushing in a cagey panic, just like the watchful refugees at its center. The sweltering heat of the jungle, the carbonic odor of war, the dead dust of displacement camps—this is the new normal for some monstrous proportion of the world’s population in our era of postglobalization fallout, the way of the twenty-first century for humans unlikely to hear or care about the Palme d’Or at Cannes, which Dheepan won in 2015. Jacques Audiard’s film plunges into the ubiquitous-crisis vibe with matter-of-fact visual immediacy: the stark palette of shadow-dark Tamil skin against bonfire flame; the pyre of martyred rebels and charred skulls; the frenzied dash of a woman through a refugee camp, looking, we eventually realize, for an orphaned child, any orphaned child, to use as part of an emigration grift.

It’s 2009, the end of the twenty-six-year-long Sri Lankan Civil War. The genius of the movie’s scenario—as the three Tamils at its heart, uneasily posing as a nuclear family, eventually end up in another war zone, a shithole of a banlieue northeast of Paris—is using a culture-clash action-genre template to craft a portrait of the instability of identity. Selves must change as borders are crossed, old personae fade into the hazy past, and the present trial creates you all over again. It’s not hyperbole to say that refugeeness—a state of traumatized flux and more or less permanent dislocation, physical but also sociopsychological—is the reigning condition of our time, with (as of 2015) over sixty-five million authentically forced migrants worldwide. To that number we should add some percentage of the 244 million global ordinary immigrant population—the chunk that may have been compelled to emigrate, legally or otherwise, by poverty or crime or domestic violence or another factor—at which point we arrive at a figure that could very well be close to 2 percent of all living human beings. At no other time in history, certainly including the periods after both world wars, have so many of us been lost. It’s as though the common childhood nightmare of being stranded alone in a store or in a forest or at sea has come true on a mass scale, rampaging like a plague, sudden and terrifying and unresolvable.

The stress ripples are significant, and far from cresting—particularly in Europe, where people don’t need (but are often getting) nativist-populist politicians bellowing about brown people in order to smell the fires of cultural collision. You could say there’s an evolution going on, a multidirectional migratory transformation that rivals the Columbian Exchange in scale and possible ramifications, presenting us with, at least, a deep future of redefinitions, attritional paranoia, competitive breeding, cultural mixing and diffusion, and cataracts of xenophobic nationalism. Given the tidal changes in motion, filmmakers seem to have only begun to take the subject on in significant ways, and then only in Europe, with Audiard’s film being perhaps one of the first truly muscular entries in the refugee-plight canon. Surely, in the decades to come, refugeeism and its discontents will be the primary crucible of Western culture.

In France, Audiard began as a more mainstream adjunct to the moody, elliptical, visually restless mini-wave of the 1990s, which included Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, Cédric Klapisch, and Brigitte Roüan, as well as the global rebirth of André Téchiné, Jacques Doillon, and Benoît Jacquot. Audiard’s bona fides were earned writing quasi-experimental genre features like Baxter (1989) and the Philip K. Dick–derived farce Barjo (1992), and his first films as a director were structurally conventional, if always boiling with visual choices that seemed to be either keeping or uncovering secrets. But with the ironic-romantic James Toback riff The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and the breathtaker A Prophet (2009), Audiard found a new sense of naturalistic immediacy, tension, and detail, making his movies feel as if they’re happening to you, not merely before you.

For Dheepan, writing with Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré (who together wrote Bidegain’s contemporaneous Les cowboys, another foundational film in the nascent subgenre), Audiard crafted the story as a launch of experience: snatching only splats of info, we trail after “Dheepan,” a brooding Tamil Tiger soldier (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) rechristened with a dead family man’s identity, his “wife,” “Yalini” (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and a nine-year-old “daughter,” “Illayaal” (Claudine Vinasithamby), whom neither of them knows or really cares to be responsible for. Largely in close-up, we follow them in Paris, as he ineptly tries to sell touristy trinkets to café patrons, then in the slummy northeast banlieue, where their tribulations truly begin, and only because they must try to assimilate.

Right away, Audiard makes clear that the sociopolitical comfort zone behind buzzwords like assimilation is exactly what he will be avoiding. His idea of signaling the broader French culture’s impression on the Tamils is to have Illayaal recite a surrealist poem by Jacques Prévert in school (“Demons and marvels, winds and tides . . .”), a lyric that suggests displacement but is otherwise iconic for its dreamy Frenchness alone. Utterly nondidactic, this is a film that prioritizes rough details and unspoken thoughts, perhaps encapsulated best in a single glance, the almost imperceptible scan Dheepan, upon arriving, throws up at the rooftop edges of the banlieue, where drug lords’ henchmen patrol with assault rifles. Over the course of the film, you may on occasion forget that Dheepan is who he is, that in his entrance interview the Tamil translator stops dead when he hears the ex-fighter’s real name. But by the end, you’ll be reminded. “Gangs? Like the Vennilas and the Minnals?” Yalini asks in their first few days, thinking of home; “Sort of,” Dheepan responds mildly, “but less dangerous.”

From its wary beginning, the movie wrestles with the French reality of life in the banlieue with an authority and fierceness few films dare, all from the eyes-wide-open perspective of these watchful Others, struggling to seem like the cohesive family they absolutely are not. The tension of the masquerade—Yalini has never been a mother, and is ready to bail on the arrangement at the first sign of trouble, while Illayaal is hyperaware of being a burden to perfect strangers—is never forgotten by Audiard’s mise-en-scène, which carefully follows anxious sight lines and limns the zone of the banlieue as if it were a maze brimming with booby traps.

As their lives grow more rooted and more complicated, with Illayaal’s issues at school and Yalini’s relationship with the local crime lord (Vincent Rottiers)—she works caring for his incapacitated uncle—and the faux family begins to feel like a real one, the film inevitably edges toward violence, which, when it comes, Audiard assembles quietly and subjectively, silencing and numbing the triumphant flavor of Dheepan’s righteous call to arms. It’s never more nor less than tragic; when Yalini suspects what Dheepan is thinking, earlier on, she’s appalled that he would bring Tiger warfare, the likes of which few French twentysomething gangstas could meet head-on, into their new lives. The poisoned whorl of postcolonial fallout spins wider and wider, until there’s almost literally nowhere on earth to hide.

Audiard claims to have been inspired by both Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs and Montesquieu’s 1721 epistolary novel Persian Letters, both classic stranger-in-a-strange-land narratives. But Tamilness was vital to the original concept; Audiard chose the ethnicity from scores of possibilities precisely because Sri Lankan immigrants are a little-known quantity in France, with none of the charged cultural baggage that comes with Africans or Middle Easterners. (Hardly missing the irony herself, Yalini takes to wearing a head scarf so as to pass as a more common minority.) Imperatively, the three Tamil actors are not film professionals—Srinivasan is a busy Chennai theater actor, while Jesuthasan had acted only once before, in a 2011 Tamil film he cowrote; more to the point, he was once a child soldier with the Tigers, and the scars you see on him as he showers are real. (The ten-year-old Vinasithamby is a Parisian whose parents are Tamil transplants.) All three are wholly convincing, abetted by the way Audiard scrupulously structures their roles and the film itself around the act of watching—wide-open, jaded gazes. Jesuthasan is soulfully withdrawn as Dheepan, registering untold wells of grief and fight-not-flight experience, but Srinivasan is the film’s hot center, thanks in part to her character’s self-preservative uncertainty but mostly to how the camera responds to the actor’s expressive eyes—they are the smell of smoke on the wind. At times, the exact circumstances of the whole film recede as you watch her silently, tensely judging her situations, assessing the relative likeliness of their ending in salvation or catastrophe.

Leaving aside the refugee subgenre, Audiard is still not crafting a revenge-action film here, any more than Read My Lips (2001) was an odd-couple romance, or A Prophet a standard prison movie, or Rust and Bone (2012) an overcoming-handicap heart-warmer. He makes far more acerbic choices, and even the plight of undocumented Asian people lost in Europe is something he resists sentimentalizing. The particular subject matter wasn’t an easily mined dramatic choice for him either; on this film’s seedy frontier, refugees and the rest of the neglected underclass live on more or less the same plane, and conflicts seem to have little to do with race.

For all our hand-wringing, and the outpouring of pertinent literature, there are not many new European movies that take on the point of view of the outsider like this, with an air of seething apprehension. That’s the film’s ultimate political salience, in the sense of realigning the culture’s default ideas of itself, of seeing what we have wrought, the fringes of our globalized reality, as an inevitable, ever-expanding territory of the proles. Realism can do this, particularly in the hands of a filmmaker like Audiard, who only once detours into a moment of purely lyrical subjectivity: the disarming, unmarked transitional slo-mo vision of an age-spotted elephant lumbering up to us out of the jungle—the only glimpse we get in the film of life as it was, outside of the new human zoo. 

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