Jacques Audiard’s ‘Dheepan’ is a profoundly powerful and relevant film that whisks themes of love, violence and struggle together into a crinkled, blood-stained paste.
It is thick in texture, and at times puzzlingly complex without meaning to be, but Dheepan is quite simply unmissable. The story, co-written by Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre, is partly autobiographical and sees Antonythasan Jesuthasan star as Sividhasan, a Tamil Tiger in war-torn Sri Lanka during the last painful days of conflict. He uses the identity of a dead man, Dheepan, in order to flee for safety and is joined by a woman, Yalini, and a young girl, Illayaal of whom make up a disjointed, makeshift family.
The film explores the struggles undertaken by these three refugees, all the way from their departure through to their gradual integration into a new culture in France. However, we are reminded that violence is in fact a universal issue and inescapable for Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal because although the improvised family manage to escape the war back on their home soil, they find themselves in the midst of a gang war on the estate they move into on the outskirts of Paris.
I had the pleasure of catching this film at Soho Screening Rooms before its official 8th April UK release date and I can assure you that Dheepan is spectacular and built upon a rock of incredibly strong and naturalistic performances; you’ll honestly forget that you’re watching a film. It opens with the deceased being covered in palm leaves and we hear their corpses crackle on a fire moments later. While the Sri Lankan civil war backstory is attached and explained with haunting images of skulls roasting in the roaring flames, Audiard chooses not to magnify or elongate the devastation in the opening sequence, which spans no longer than a minute or so. In Dheepan it’s all about moving onwards, even if you’re moving downwards you’re still journeying because you’re bound to the conveyer belt of time. This is exactly why the rest of the film deals with the trauma depicted in the introduction, which is beautifully shot by Eponine Momenceau.
There are character transformations that are unexpected and take you aback. Dheepan, for instance, grows from a timid and fragile character into a fierce warrior who stands for what he believes in and you really don’t expect this The relationships between Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal break, rebuild and then shatter again and it is fascinating to see the three characters try and make sense of their awful situation. It’s almost impossible to imagine being grouped with two other strangers and forced to improvise a family structure in order to be granted a new life away from conflict. This is the reality for some people in the world and for us, the audience, this is a haunting realisation indeed, as sheltered and safe as we are.
Now and again we’re given stunning vignettes of Sri Lanka from the perspective of Dheepan and as gorgeous as these flashes are they are also deeply painful to watch and you will see why as the narrative unfolds. Nicolas Jaar’s original score balances wonderfully well with the cinematography and injects a serious amount of depth into the film. Hazy sounds fluctuate in and out of the scenes in the film and have you clench your palms in anticipation. Gunshots, in particular, frequently pierce the atmosphere with such ferocity that you’ll seek to duck and dive from the bullets in frame that penetrate the estate in Paris where the three refugees reside.
One distinct flaw with this film is that Audiard attempts to branch out too far with overlapping, interweaved storylines that snap prematurely and leave the audience slightly confused. It does get a bit messy but it is forgivable upon reflection. Audiard has a gem in his hands. We’ve needed a film like Dheepan for a long while and here it is at a perfect time. I cannot recommend it enough.
Dheepan is in cinemas April 8th