DHEEPAN, drama, rated R, in Tamil and French with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles

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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

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