Dheepan — film review: ‘Quietly powerful’

A Tamil refugee comes to Paris in Jacques Audiard’s thoughtful, moving film
Claudine Vinasithamby and Jesuthasan Antonythasan in 'Dheepan'

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Migration is the mood music of much modern cinema. Displacement, hope, disorientation, anxiety, conflict: the tonalities are infinite as people, by will or necessity, shift their homes and hearts across borders.

After last week’s Victoria — a young Spanish woman’s ordeal by innocence in a Berlin crime world — in Jacques Audiard’s Dheepana Tamil refugee, fleeing war, comes to Paris. Winner of the 2015 Cannes Palme d’Or, this film from the maker of The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet is thoughtful, moving, quietly powerful. For 90 minutes it’s like a firecracker waiting to explode. Then comes the explosion.

The story-setting is wonderful. Audiard writes his prologue in fire. A bare few images show the war horrors besetting the hero (played by real writer/refugee Jesuthasan Antonythasan): the pyre built to burn the slain, the desperate camps and desolated villages. Then comes the flight, with “Dheepan” (he assumes a dead man’s name) towing a bereaved mother barely met and a war-orphaned girl, whom he will pass off as his own family.

In the tenement-block Paris suburb, Audiard builds the humanity and suspense. The film catches the dazed automatism of dispossessed lives searching for new beginnings, new belongings. He jobs as a janitor. His “wife” becomes a carer-cleaner in an apartment where a gang of youths holds daily, ominous pow-wows. To the stuttering of sporadic gunfire in the street outside, Dheepan’s makeshift family becomes an army bound by a fresh loyalty — to each other.

It’s a bonding brilliantly portrayed. Sparest dialogue; simplest gestures. A hand reaching for another; words of mischievous, warming banter (she to him, “You’re not funny, even in Tamil”); even a back-story that blooms briefly when Dheepan builds a little gold frame, like a shrine, to house a photo of his real, mourned, war-slain wife.

The violent climax, which I thought a touch brusque in Cannes, even melodramatic, now seems earned and inevitable. (This film wonderfully repays a second viewing.) Here is a soldier thrown into a war he cannot be part of, until he decides, with jeopardy lapping at his and his loved ones’ door, that yes, he can be and yes, he should be. The final, nearly hallucinatory coda, displacing the trio to another world, is almost perfect. Is it real? Is it meant to be? Or is it a want-to-be family’s dream of what — it hoped — would some day come to be?

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