The 2015 Cannes Film Festival ended with a whimper instead of a bang last May. As the winners were announced, no one was exactly sure which film would take home the Palme d’Or, as there was no clear favorite, but no one expected a winner that had previously received the mutest of reactions. In a way, Dheepan won because it wasn’t a film that was deemed controversial or polarizing, probably getting the most neutral reaction from all the juries, and thus deemed the winner over films by Jia Zhangke, Hirokazu Koreeda and Hou Hsiao-Hsien — films that were probably greater but had a harder time getting the proper reactions from the Coen brothers (jury presidents), as they were all polarizing films amongst the critics.
Historically, the Dheepan victory might rank among the most disappointing choices of the biggest (and probably the most important) festival of the year. Directed by Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, A Prophet, A Self-Made Hero), the film manifests a directorial approach that seems at both times paternalistic and resentful towards its characters, as Audiard chooses to portray them as complex human beings in need of help while simultaneously chastising them because of the their past, their culture and the way they try to survive.
In a way, the film is the chronicle of a family that isn’t a real family. Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is the “father,” a man that we see in the opening scene with a wound in his leg and dirty military attire, preparing a pyre where his wife and children are in, as well as most of the people he knew from his home town in Sri Lanka. He is a complex figure and the main pillar for this “family,” a person that tries to live his daily life in peace, escaping from the terrors and violence of the past, but at the same time, he is indebted to and impassioned about the resistance in which he partook, singing loud songs about his homeland when he drinks a bit too much and becoming nostalgic about having a gun by his side to defend those he cared for.
Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) is the “mother” figure, and she is just as eager to escape the violence and bloodshed that marked her childhood and teenage years. Now as a more mature woman, Yalini knows that she can’t stay in Sri Lanka for long and decides to flee in search of her cousin, who lives in England. We first see her running around and desperately hunting around a refugee camp, looking for a lonely child without any parents. That’s when she finds the “child” of this family, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), a nine-year-old girl whose mother died in the recent attack on the government. They come together to make up a ruse, as they use the passport of a dead family to flee and find their way to France, where they will try to make a living as undocumented immigrants.
Their initial situation isn’t so bad as they are quickly given an apartment and a job for Dheepan under the illusion that they are political refugees. (Dheepan is quick to assert that he was a reporter that worked for humanitarian organizations.) In France, they try to live together despite their unfamiliarity with each other, and they slowly realize that the neighborhood isn’t as calm as it initially appeared, as thugs and crime drug lords have taken over many buildings — those that Dheepan has to clean and protect as the new caretaker. There’s a pity attempt by the director to equate the terrible violence of Sri Lanka to the crimes committed by French thugs, but that kind of false equivalence is what brings down a movie that could have served as an anthropological portrait of immigrant life in the 21st century. In the end, Audiard crudely forces the idea that the trauma of violence is something the subjects can’t escape.
The confrontations and connections with the criminals ends up being the main focus of Dheepan as it veers towards its second half. Despite confronting the issues of language and culture, as well as those of money and the difference between living in Sri Lanka and the slums of Paris, there’s still a gap in the film that needs to be filled. I think it’s all up to the director’s interest on concepts of violence over the social issues themselves, and while I wasn’t expecting a film that tackles immigration in a neutral way from a non-immigrant, it would’ve been an interesting feature with more focus on the family’s new society, especially due to recent events in France.
Dheepan slowly but surely starts to construct a clear comparison, as the title character — accustomed to the scars of battle and war — prepares for the worst and tries to mimic certain elements of peace that we see earlier in the film. In one interesting yet superfluous scene, he uses the contraption that leaves tracks of chalk to create a line in the middle of the apartment complex, yelling to the vigilant drug carriers and snipers,“No Fire Zone,” just like the one that is implemented in his dangerous region of Sri Lanka. Incidentally, there is also the setting of the film’s violent climax, a place where the stakes are supposedly high and the filmmaking accompanies that sensation, yet at the same time, it seems as if the violence came from nowhere.
Before the climax, there’s an emotional phone call scene between two members of the faux family that would’ve provided the perfect closure, some sort of realization that a peaceful life isn’t something attainable in the political and social environment in which the immigrants arrive. Yet Audiard decides to have an action climax ala The Terminator rather than something more in line with the film as a whole. Unfortunately, once the climax ends, we are given one of the most beautifully-shot bad endings in the history of cinema. A caress, a sunny day and the sensation that nothing in the previous 109 minutes really mattered at all.
Jaime Grijalba (@jaimegrijalba) is from Chile and has been writing about film, literature, videogames and culture for the past six years. He’s also preparing his first feature-length film, since he’s a filmmaker too (or wants to be at least).