Thousands of refugees are arriving on the shores of Europe every week. A common accusation that is leveled at them by opponents of asylum seekers is that they concoct tales of suffering in order to get in. Another is that their cute family relationships are lies, designed to win the sympathy of the immigration authorities. Then, having gained admittance, they perpetuate the violence they claim to be fleeing in the first place. The three main characters in Jacques Audiard’s new film (crowned last year with the Palme d’Or at Cannes), the eponymous Dheepan, his purported wife Yalini, and the nine-year-old girl they present as their daughter Illayaal, are guilty of these lapses and more. These aren’t even their real names, but those of dead Tamils whose identities they swiped in order to escape war-ravaged Sri Lanka and enter France. And yet, despite our knowing that their entire story is a fabrication, despite the fact that Dheepan has probably committed heinous acts for the Tamil Tigers, we want them to succeed in the gangster-run Paris housing estate that is their new home.
To these decaying, vandalized slabs, which glide past us, again and again, in slow panning shots that become the film’s leitmotif, Audiard gives an ironic name, “the fields,” about as different as is possible from the Sri Lankan field with which the film opens, showing Dheepan, a Tiger commander, observing the funeral of comrades on a pyre of palm fronds. The Parisian fields are a motley sort of place, self-governing—if you can call checkpoints controlled by the local drug don a form of self-government—inhabited by a mix of north African Arabs, Cameroonians, and Armenians. But not, however, Sri Lankans—who have contributed relatively little to France’s migrant waves, and are little known there. Between the main characters and their adoptive home there is no flicker of recognition, no colonial history to interpose even a reassuring mutual dislike. Plonked somewhere in the girdle of mongrel Frenchness on the outskirts of modern Paris, oblivious to the snippets of Arabic around them, they are recognised as vaguely Indian. Dheepan, who has refashioned himself as an odd-job man, is known simply as “Mowgli.”
Audiard’s most acclaimed film, A Prophet (2009)—the one that should have got the Palme D’Or—was an effortlessly multicultural tale of relationships and power among the French criminal fraternity. It follows Malik, an opportunistic small-time Arab-French convict who over short periods of prison leave becomes indispensable first to a Corsican gang, then a Muslim one; by the time he is released from jail he is an esteemed hit man and drug dealer. His former partner in crime is dead, unusually enough, from natural causes, and Malik inherits the man’s widow and child. The film ends with a new family unit shyly forming.
In Dheepan, Audiard makes his interest in improvised family structures the film’s central idea. The three main characters join together opportunistically in the Sri Lankan refugee camp from which they will head westwards, but the question of whether Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayaal will end up caring for each other—becoming, in the process, a “real” family—isn’t simply of human interest. In their new home, safety and security can only be found by pooling income, morale, skills, and acquired local knowledge. Illayaal, who is played with maturity by Claudine Vinasithamby, is up for the challenge, as you would expect most nine-year-olds to be. By far the quickest French-learner of the three, she is a vital cultural scout and marker of normality (soon enough, like any other girl her age, she’s asking Yalini if she can go to a school friend’s birthday party). Rather it’s her “parents,” the diffident, forbiddingly blank Yalini, and Dheepan himself, scarred mentally as well as physically, who threaten the unit’s success.
Over the course of the film, as the housing blocks loom ever-more menacingly, particularly at night, when the traffic in drugs and girls plays out in ethereal sequences to a score of gunfire, this tension is beautifully maintained. Jesuthasan Antonythasan is an authentically taciturn, resourceful Dheepan; himself a former Tamil Tiger who sought asylum in France, during rehearsals he surprised Audiard, who didn’t know much about his lead, by saying, “I know about all this—it’s my life.”
Dheepan takes pride in his new identity as caretaker of the housing complex where they live, fashioning a toolbox, jerry-rigging a generator, and clearing out rubbish left by the gangsters’ monster parties. But his past flicks a dangerous switch, for example when an outing to a Hindu temple leads to a tense meeting with a former brother-in-arms. That night he gets drunk and croaks out a horrid Tiger song about the children of today being the martyrs of tomorrow.
Dheepan is solaced, and perhaps also troubled, by a recurring dream of an elephant’s flexing trunk amid a sighing wind—seemingly an allusion to home, strength, serenity, and (for any Sri Lankan Ganesh-worshipper) a transcendent reality that is only fleetingly acknowledged in an otherwise relentlessly gritty movie.
Yalini, conveyed with great subtlety by the South Indian stage actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan, finds employment caring for the invalid father of the local drug don, Brahim. Yalini and Brahim flirt a bit in tongues the other doesn’t understand. She’s less blank now, and Audiard’s camera finds her glinting sexuality—a confidential smile when leaving Brahim, the blue of a turquoise earring against her dark skin. But it’s Dheepan for whom she has authentic feelings, and one evening her hand rests on his and her bare back melts into the inky dark of the room into which she leads her impostor spouse.
Audiard’s handling of the behavior of his main characters, relative to each other, relative to the whole, is the achievement of Dheepan, and the fact that his main trio are Hindu allows him to make points about immigration that have nothing to do with French-Muslim tensions or recurring fears of terrorism. His film becomes more about the not easily compatible human instincts to adapt, forget, and remember.
As Dheepan comes into conflict with the leader of the local gang, Yalini first resolves to flee, then plays mediator between Dheepan and the callow young tyrant threatening to kill him. But the lovers are not sure they don’t in fact hate each other for standing in the way of each other’s happiness. In a riveting scene of emotional one-downmanship, Yalini volunteers for a body-search by Brahim’s men with the aim of traducing Dheepan’s virility, announcing, “He’s not my husband!” Dheepan responds by laying into the gang with fists and boots. Clearly, he is.
From the graphic violence of A Prophet, we know that Audiard does not shy from a slashed artery or two, and Dheepan ends up veering into a revenge scene that is, nonetheless, as impressionistic and unreal as the elephant dream sequences that have come before. Audiard has said that he wanted to give the Tamils “a violence of their own,“ though to what end remains unclear. The violence of this sequence is incompatible with the film’s happy-ever-after coda; it’s unconscionable that what these traumatized war-fugitives needed all along was a really good bloodbath.
The qualities of Dheepan lie elsewhere—in the construction of the family itself, and the wider questions it raises about the French state. One of the interesting features—prophecies, perhaps—of Audiard is his dismissal of France’s ability to police itself. In A Prophet he permits Malik the outrageously implausible feat of committing mass murder undetected in broad daylight in a crowded street. The French Republic is similarly absent from Dheepan, and the failure of any law enforcement agency to intervene in the carnage at the end seems of a piece with a country being overwhelmed by events.
There’s a quandary behind the West’s confused response to the refugee crisis. On the one hand, there’s the compassion we’re all taught—in my own case bundled in with other “Christian” values; the Good Samaritan has much to answer for. Yet on the other, the instinct, enshrined in the idea of the nation state, to protect one’s own space, resources, and monopoly over jobs and services. As Dheepan reminds us, the right of abode in an advanced Western country is in reality a jackpot attainable through ingenuity, selfishness, will-power, pluck, dishonesty, optimism, and good fortune. These are the qualities that millions of people, uprooted by wars and instability from Nigeria to Pakistan, have found indispensable as they move West in numbers unheard of since World War II, and that Audiard has artfully incarnated in Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayaal.