Despite coming from A Prophet and Rust And Bone director Jacques Audiard, Dheepan wasn't on many critics' radar right up until the morning of its premiere rolled around. And while it's not going to upset the Palme d'Or frontrunners, it's a film with so much thematic subtitles that it deserves any of the hype it has now developed.
Following three Sri Lankan refugees taking on the identities of a murdered family trying to form a new life on a French estate, the film is focused tightly on the hot-topic of immigration. Scenes play out in three different languages with the characters clumsily translating each other and conventional ideas of anti-foreigner attitudes are challenged; a gang leader is one of the most accepting people they come across. Repeated references to moving to the UK feel particularly potent given the rising contempt brought about by UKIP.
Jesuthasan Antonythasan, yet another first-timer fronting an In Competition film, is suitably restrained as the titular character. Dheepan's got a lowly view of his position in society and so spends any time out of the house bundled up, trying to hide in the background. He even lectures his fake wife about getting used to being stared at, rather than thinking they may actually integrate into the society, betraying incredibly modest goals and building to an understated emotional crescendo when he finally does become part of the community.
That family dynamic is an interesting one; outwardly a happy unit, alone moments remind how these people have been just flung together. Former soldier Dheepan and vague acquaintance Yalini naturally have no husband and wife chemistry and Yalini is woefully incapable of treating nine year old Illayaal, who she first met moments before they left, anything like a child. They're unconventionally disfunction, and it's working together that proves to be the group's arc.
A full film dealing with just this would have been more than enough, but, somewhat regrettably, Audiard goes for a literally explosive finale. Having Dheepan's world almost revert back to the state it was back in Sri Lanka is really the only endgame the film could play, showing how escaping the country doesn't free asylum seekers of their past and allowing Antonythasan's performance to go full circle, but it feels tonally off kilter and dampens the film's overall impact. But, thankfully, not enough to make Dheepan in anyway unworthy as a social exploration or abnormal family drama.
Be aware that this isn't a film that had some reviewers full attention. The press screening for Gaspar Noé's Love started less than an hour after Dheepan ended, meaning a good chunk of the critic audience were shifting in their seats during the third act and had left before the credits rolled.
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