Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan starts with a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam soldier igniting the funeral pyre of his dead comrades. Then the soldier takes off his uniform and tosses it into the flames. He has lost everything – his family, his war. He just wants to get out of the country. So does a woman called Yalini. Because she knows that families have a much better chance of getting out, she is looking for a spare child, preferably an orphan, who will pretend that they are mother and daughter. She finds a nine year-old girl called Illayaal who has lost her family, too. They meet the soldier. The fake family is complete.
They don’t know each other, they have nothing in common except their desire to survive and escape, but they have to work together to make it while nursing their own private wounds. Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal are not their real names; they are the names in the passports whose photographs fit their own faces best. From that point on, they have to keep up the façade. Yalini has a cousin in England, but Dheepan thinks business is better in Paris. They move to a banlieue with drug dealers in social housing. Not such an improvement from civil war, but at least they earn money, and Illayaal can go to school and learn French.
Audiard is unable to make a bad movie. A Prophet is a great movie, Rust and Bone was very good until the articifial happy ending. This one here has an unexpected ending, too, but it worked for me. The three main roles are cast with people who have very little acting experience. They are essentially themselves; only the male lead, played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, a writer and activist, has been in movies before. Yalini and Illayaal are played by Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasythambi. It’s intriguing to watch them: their body language betrays the fact that they are not a family. Very eventually, though, they become tired of trying not to be a family, and they are tempted to give in.
There are many surprises in Dheepan. The drug lord is not an evil creep, but a young criminal who is able to have a normal conversation with another person. He patiently explains the tracking device on his ankle to Yalini. There are friendly neighbours. Dheepan is a very able caretaker. The tragedy happens within the fake family: Yalini’s jealousy of Illayaal learning French much faster than she does. Illayaal’s problems at school, and the pressure her constant lying puts on her. Dheepan tries to do his best, but he is contacted by a Tamil Tigers commander, which makes him realize that, in sense, the war is not over.
The most fascinating scene is set at the immigration office, where Dheepan states that he has come to France for a better life for his family. The translator interrups and says: “Don’t tell him that. Tell him that you’ve been in a war and that the government has set your house on fire and wants to kill you, and you are afraid for your life and the lives of your family.” Dheepan repeats the words of the translator in Tamil, and the translator, utterly poker-faced, repeats the words to the immigrations officer in French.
Dheepan tries to do two things at once. It has some scenes that play tricks on your eyes. The neon gadgets that Dheepan sells are, at first, only blurred lights on screen. The shadow of an elephant stalking through the sunlit jungle. These are Audiard’s stylistic choices, and they work. The bulk of the story is much closer to bleak realism, rather closer to what the Dardenne brothers try to achieve. The main thing is whether or not these three people will somehow find a corner in which life is somehow possible and worthwhile. And they do, sort of.