Dheepan: Passages, by Aaron Pinkston
If you’ve heard the title Dheepan, it is most likely because of its Palme d’Or win at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival – which according to most film writers on the scene was a huge surprise. With that in mind, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of Dheepan. Would it be a wholly awards-grabbing cynical piece of artertainment or a good but not better than its competition (the critical favorite Son of Saul, for example)? Knowing that Jacques Audiard was the man behind Dheepan, I shouldn’t have doubted the film. It is indeed a rich and complex film with a new perspective on a hot topic.
From what I’ve seen from Jacques Audiard, Dheepan fits right into his style and themes. Between A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and this film, the French auteur is clearly interested in makeshift families in gritty and violent worlds. In Dheepan, three refugees from war-torn Sri Lanka receive false identities in order to flee to suburban Paris. The new patriarch, who takes the name Dheepan, was a high level soldier in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil party, a militant organization that was unsuccessful in creating an independent state. He is matched with Yalini, an unmarried young woman, and nine-year-old orphan Illayaal, who are escaping the violence that Dheepan has a part in creating.
Dheepan isn’t an overtly political film, despite the political backdrop and racial, economic and ethnic elements at play. The film is most interesting as a family story among three strangers coming together and trying to build a life. In France, the trio is set up in the suburban slums as caretakers for a housing development. Dheepan’s main job duties are to sort mail for the inhabitants and general upkeep. Yalini, bored with her new life, takes on a job cooking and cleaning for the elderly relative of Brahim, a local gang leader. They are each able to overlook the increasing violence around them for so long before they get directly caught up in it. The third act shifts dramatically as violence escalates to an irreversible point. Even as Dheepan reverts to his war instincts, the motivation is protecting his new family.
One key difference between Dheepan and Audiard’s previous work is the casting. A Prophet starred up-and-comer Tahar Rahim next to veteran actor Niels Arestrup; Rust and Bone paired Oscar winner Marion Cotillard with raw but promising Matthias Schoenaerts (who has since broken into English-language films The Drop and Far from the Madding Crowd). Casting two unprofessional actors in the leading roles is always a calculated risk, but it is particularly integral to this story. Dheepan works with an outsider immigrant plot but the twist that the world they now inhabit brings out the violent pasts that they left behind makes it unique.
The actors are able to build up an incredible amount of empathy, despite being shown with flaws. Dheepan quite obviously comes from a violent past, but even Yalini is willing to abandon her stand-in daughter to an assuredly horrible life with absolutely no remorse. Kalieaswari Srinivasan, who has no other acting credits, is particularly good as Yalini. Her performance is full of life (especially next to the dower performance from Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan) despite the dreadful conditions her character is up against.
I can’t speak to whether Dheepan “deserved” the top prize at the most illustrious international film festival in the world but I can certainly say that it is a film worth your time. Though it may not be as accessible or exciting as its director’s previous films, Dheepan fits right into Audiard’s aesthetic and furthers his themes of outsiders in extraordinary conditions.