Dheepan is written and directed by Jacques Audiard, who previously directed the overly melodramatic but superbly acted Rust & Bone and before that, the searing crime-drama, A Prophet. His latest film which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year is based partly on the life experiences of Jesuthasan Antonythasan, a former child soldier with the Sri Lankan militant group of Tamil Tigers, who fled his country in the late 1980s and eventually made his way to France, where he became an acclaimed playwright, essayist and novelist.
In the film, Antonythasan plays Dheepan, a Tamil Tiger forced out of Sri Lanka and settled by the French government in one of the run-down Parisian housing-projects as an asylum-seeker. He claims to be married to Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and to have a daughter (Claudine Vinasithamby), but this turns out to be a convenient lie, guaranteeing them all a place to live. Dheepan gets a job as a janitor, responsible for cleaning most of the apartments on the estate. Despite his best attempts to fit in, the experience of civil war proves too traumatic for him and when he sees evil in the drug dealers who run the project, he finds himself determined to take action.
While Dheepan doesn’t quite rise up to the level of Audiard’s previous two films, it is without doubt an admirable effort and a compelling character study, and at most times I was able to appreciate it for that. One thing about this film that really works are the performances. Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby, who play Dheepan’s wife and daughter are quite good but I suppose its Jesuthasan Antonythasan’s commanding and naturalistic screen-presence as the titular character that is most engaging to watch. I also think this is a far more grounded film as compared to A Prophet and Rust & Bone and serves as a great canvas to display Audiard’s talent for directing the smaller and more subtle scenes.
What doesn’t however work for this film, however is that it tends to get quite meandering as the run-time progresses. It isn’t as tightly constructed as you would hope for it to be, even though it clocks at a mere 107 minutes and towards the latter half, I think, it really starts to lose steam, which is signified by the somewhat desperate and slap-dash final act. There are elements of the film that border both Taxi Driver and Death Wish, but are never quite able to recreate the same profound effect, both those films were able to.
I think it’s quite obvious that the film is a social commentary on immigration in France and perhaps one on war itself, but on a personal level I wasn’t always able to connect with what this film was trying to say and I don’t think Audiard did a great job to keep me compelled throughout.
All in all, I think Dheepan is an admirable effort. There is a lot to admire in the film, especially the performances and the film has great emotional depth as well, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work and towards the latter half in particular, the film really tends to get quite meandering which is why I couldn’t find myself liking this film as much as I hoped I would.