Although it cheapens its impact by swerving into genre terrain, “Dheepan” — winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize in 2015 — is a satisfying, beautifully human immigrant and refugee drama.
French writer-director Jacques Audiard directs with his trademark grit and grace, and mixes familiar formats with emotional truth.
Like his previous films (“Read My Lips,” “Rust and Bone” and the particularly fine “A Prophet”), “Dheepan” features brutality, adversity and rough people who undergo major transformations as a result of positive connection — often involving unlikely romantic couplings that Audiard and his in-sync actors make credible.
At a refugee camp in war-ravaged Sri Lanka, Dheepan (Jesuthasan Anthonythasan), a Tamil Tiger rebel who has taken the name of a dead man, teams with a woman, assigned the name “Yalini” (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and a 9-year-old orphaned girl, “Illayaal” (Claudine Vinasithamby), to form a faux family. The ruse allows all three characters to settle in France as refugees.
Adjustment proves difficult in Paris, where they struggle to learn French and feel like an authentic family. They move into a run-down tenement where Dheepan begins working as a caretaker. Drug dealers occupy the site. As turf wars intensify, the “family” realize that their new home, like their homeland, is a war zone.
Yalini, meanwhile, gets a job as a caregiver for an ill older man (Faouzi Bensaidi). At his apartment, she meets Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), a high-ranking gang member.
Pressure mounts for Dheepan when a fellow Tamil refugee tries to force him to rejoin the fight and when the drug wars put him and his “family” in danger. The suppressed warrior within him reemerges.
As Dheepan’s rage explodes, Audiard’s heretofore naturalistic immigrant story becomes a vengeance thriller, with results that, while potent, are a letdown, given the thoughtful and rich presentation of the characters’ struggles and small triumphs up to that point.
Still, “Dheepan” is a memorable and relevant refugee-condition drama, a non-preachy indictment of France’s immigrant policies, an engrossing personal journey, and an inspiring testament to the hope and change human connection can spark.
The skilled Audiard isn’t afraid to lay on adversity or end with improbable sunshine, and it works.
Dheepan and Yalini’s relationship — they share wonderful moments — helps the movie triumph. Though a fairly inexperienced actor, Anthonythasan, a writer and a former teen fighter with the Tamil Tigers, is quietly powerful as the damaged Dheepan, and as a symbol of the private toll of war. Srinivasan, an Indian stage actress, shines in the equally substantial role of Yalini.
Occasionally, the imposter spouses share romantic feelings. But a passage in which the pair discuss Dheepan’s inability to understand French humor is best.
Starring Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers
Written by Noe Debre, Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes