DHEEPAN, drama, rated R, in Tamil and French with subtitles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles
A film with many unexpected turns, Dheepan begins in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka, where a man, a woman, and a nine-year-old girl form a makeshift family to escape their war-torn country and begin a life somewhere else. The film ends in a drug-infested housing project in a Parisian suburb. Because the trio has made a pretense of being a family, as the film progresses, it seems as though Dheepan’s ( Jesuthasan Antonythasan) and Yalini’s (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) attempts to connect with each other and to parent Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) will be the story’s focus. Instead, the film takes a sharp turn into the subplot of Yalini’s new job. She cooks and cleans for a disabled man, Habib (Faouzi Bensaïdi), whose apartment is also the operations base of a temperamental drug dealer, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers). Helmed inventively by Jacques Audiard, the film won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. With the recent terror attacks in Paris, it’s not surprising that a film that deals with immigrant life in Paris and encounters with unexpected violence — in this case, drug-related — resonated with Cannes audiences.
The character of Yalini infuses this serious film with a dose of spirit. At first, her interactions with Dheepan are terse. One day, she goes so far as to tell him that he has no sense of humor. Yalini’s subsequent friendship with Dheepan gives the film a sensual charge, but also of interest are her nascent attempts to communicate with Brahim, who hangs out in Habib’s apartment and savors the food she prepares. The connection between Yalini and Brahim is evident early on and complicates her budding relationship with Dheepan and the already-tangled drug trade in the housing project.
Occasionally the camera moves from a close-up of Dheepan’s face to a poetic close-up of, say, an elephant in slow motion, as though that is what he is thinking about. We understand, without being told, that Dheepan may be in France, but his mind, to some extent, has still not gotten over his surreal transplant from Sri Lanka.
Young Illayaal begins to go to a school in Paris, where she reads poetry and learns to recite it. With her language skills, Illayaal helps her fauxparents negotiate their new life. Yalini yearns to lead a more authentic life, and she wants to leave her pretend family behind to go to England and live with her cousin there. Though Yalini has had a fairly smooth escape from Sri Lanka, her second attempt to escape won’t be as easy. The music, which incorporates Sri Lankan ballads, pop, and temple music, adds to the narrative complexity. In this powerful film, in which the threat of violence is always imminent, Illayaal’s recitation of poetry provides a sliver of hope. — Priyanka Kumar
Family is what you make it: Claudine Vinasithamby and Jesuthasan Antonythasan