Shadows obscure life throughout Dheepan, in the drudgery of scraping a living together from nighttime street vending to cleaning out dank common areas in a French housing development rife with tension between rival gangsters to the room the titular character shares with a woman and girl masquerading as his wife and daughter. The shadows seep into the lead character’s sense of self, for his real name is not even Dheepan, as established early in the film. He’s a former Tamil soldier fleeing strife in Sri-Lanka, adopting a new name and joining forces with a young woman and an orphaned girl for safe passage to France.
The shadows are metaphor for a persona obscured, thinly hidden below a shield of near nothingness. Can a man, conscripted to war ever shake off the warrior? The 2015 palme d’or winner by French writer-director Jacques Audiard looks deep into the cracks of a man trying to pull himself together in an atmosphere of a new kind of friction with only his phony family to lean on but otherwise no support system. As a truce between two gangs that rule two buildings in a project where Dheepan has been hired as the property’s caretaker begins to fray, so does the stress inside the protagonist’s sense of self. The film is a distressing, complex yet empathetic statement on the immigrant experience, which never sidelines its drama, as all involved are thrown into an unstable powder keg.
It takes a mighty performance to pull this off and Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan is a commanding presence to watch. Though he is propped up by interludes of shadowy, subconscious scenes where the obscured head of an elephant emerges from shadow and forest, it is Antonythasan’s tense face, feigning neutrality against an inner turmoil of a man haunted by post-traumatic stress that makes the film gripping to watch. Though the dreams offer beautiful interludes, the actor is better supported by that marvelous dynamic between light and dark shot by the talented DP Éponine Momenceau, who makes her impressive feature debut. She keeps her lens close yet observational. There are slow zooms and incongruously blocked shots in shallow focus that lend an intimacy to her gaze. Dheepan speaks to the strength of the relationship between performer and the gaze of an empathetic cinematographer.
The actor is also bolstered by the raw and earthy performances around him, from his young “wife” Yalini to his “daughter” Illayaal (played by two fine newcomers Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby). Both have their own inner conflicts. Illayaal rises to adapt to her new chance at life, as she enters a school that doesn’t necessarily give her all the opportunities she deserves. Yalini finds work taking care of a mute man in one of the buildings, where gangsters meet in the living room, overseen by Brahim (Vincent Rottiers). Though at first appearing flatly sinister to Yalini (again, camera placement becomes key, this time creating an enigmatic distance), even Brahim becomes a delicately sketched man of private turmoil, shackled by an ankle monitor, appreciative of Yalini’s dedication and cooking but not above tapping into a psychotic tendency to deal with meddlers, including Dheepan.
The sense of conflict in these characters is rich and real. Audiard burst onto the French film scene with the Oscar-nominated A Prophet in 2009, a rather strong prison drama that offered a harsh, brutal examination of the rise of a crook through the system’s unofficial ranks. But with Dheepan, he shows further maturity, with a sharpened sense of patience and a deeper focus on the souls of his characters while speaking to social issues without preaching via exposition. The challenges these people face are rife with tautness both internal and external, and Audiard doesn’t let down in following through when it all inevitably spills over in a breathtaking spree of violence.
Dheepan earns its startling finale, as all of the film’s conflicts and tensions come to a head. That camera work, always so tight on our hero, becomes something entirely more harrowing in its intimacy. All of the film’s elements gel remarkably to hold the viewer’s attention throughout the film, from the subdued, atmospheric shimmer of the musical score by Nicholas Jaar (another collaborator making his feature film debut), to the deft editing and pacing by Juliette Welfling accompanied by the film’s secret weapon, some nerve-rattling sound editing by Nicolas Dambroise. Dheepan stands out as one of the best explorations about the unshakable darkness within a man who can’t seem to leave his past behind, even across an ocean.
Dheepan runs 115 minutes, is in Tamil, French and English with English subtitles and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area Friday, Aug. 5, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The film had its Florida premiere earlier this year at the Miami International Film Festival. All images in this post were provided by IFC Films, who also provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.