In a year when our thoughts on immigration laws and protocols are being dramatically reconsidered and redefined, it is rewarding and moving to watch a film like Jacques Audiard's Dheepan, winner of the Golden Palm at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Novelist and former Tamil Tiger child soldier, Antonythasan Jesuthasan, stars in a breakout performance as one of several Sri Lankan immigrants fleeing from his country after the Civil War only to fall into yet another conflict zone, an unstable housing project. In the ensuring narrative, we find the immense love and understanding for refugees that we need now more than ever - though Audiard goes a step further than most stories of the kind.
The film, which also stars Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby as his wife and daughter, respectively (they use passports from deceased victims to get into France), is a heartfelt tale of survival that also serves as an incalculably relevant answer to the ethics on political refugees in a year that may go down as a turning point in the way that nations discuss it. The struggle of Dheepan, Yallini and Illayaal is the kind of story we have been hearing everyday on the news, and in the way it is easy to relate to but difficult to understand, it is just as emotionally resonant. The overwhelmingly violent Civil War in Sri Lanka lasted 26 years (1983-2009), and the journey covered in Audiard’s drama isn’t the kind of clear-cut salvation through heroism some would like to believe it is: the characters covered in this film are desperately overwhelmed by shock and trauma, and yet they have to adapt to a new life with new traditions and rules and a new family simply because this can’t be worse than the options should they stay in Sri Lanka. And that doesn’t mean that what’s available as they arrive is paradise on Earth.
Joining the likes of similarly engagé films such as Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Angelopoulos’s Eternity and a Day, Dheepan is a fresh and intriguing take on the subject due to the means in which it portrays the perspective of its protagonists, both dramatically and visually. The intricate and elaborate approach to point-of-view shots – which rely on subtle shifts in focus, partially blocked or darkened foregrounds, and an abundance of medium shots and close-ups – gives the film a certain intimacy, compounded by the extensive use of detail shots of arms, legs, hands and feet. The end effect makes Dheepan feel equal parts restrained and immersive, worthy of any Bresson – demanding the viewer’s attention by creating an authentic representation of Dheepan's family as people drastically pushed into an unfamiliar setting. In the contrast between the distancing cold of Le Pré-Saint-Gervais and the warmth of the film's colorful clothes, searing faces and moving performances, Dheepan is alternatively haunting and seductive.
The result is a slow-burning sensorial experience of immense tension that evolves from a mostly familial drama (Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal are never quite certain about their roles in their new, artificially born relationship) into an unnerving suspense story that at the very least has enough to put an entire audience at the edge of its seats. Moreover if this transition, rewarding as it is, feels too abrupt for some viewers, it’s less an indication of narrative issues than a strong representation of how often immigrants and refugees, evading from their homes in anxious despair, are forced to cope - facing similar societal problems that seem to repeat themselves in varying degrees of violence, as if the horrors of war could not let them go. What starts as a lucky shot into political asylum continues in the form of cultural, linguistic and social barriers; in a country that has had an infamously troubled relationship with foreigners, here is a film that shows admiration for the bravery to be found in their lives, and expresses concern over the modern treatment of refugees with an honest attention to detail.