France (109 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Jacques Audiard
Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015, yet a divisive choice, where there was a feeling at Cannes that the director was “owed” the prize due to a festival oversight by only awarding the Grand Prize (2nd Place) Award for 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet ... in 2009, awarding the higher prize to Haneke’s WHITE RIBBON (2009), with a jury headed by Isabelle Huppert who previously worked with Haneke, where over the passage of time many believe Audiard made the superior film. As no other festival films leaped off the screen screaming top prize this year, though there was a contingency supporting Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THE ASSASSINS (2015), the consensus of opinion among the jury headed by the Coen brothers awarded Audiard’s film the top prize, though it does not rank among his best work. Despite the controversy, DHEEPAN is another powerful work by this director, who seems to specialize in outsiders, outcasts, and themes of extreme alienation, featuring characters on the fringes of society that border on the hopelessness of the human condition. Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan, an actor and author) is a Tamil Tiger guerilla fighter in Sri Lanka caught up in the ravaged onslaught of the nation’s bloody civil war, where after a 26-year military campaign, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, bringing the civil war to an end. Eventually losing his home and entire family, Dheepan is in dire straits trying to get out of a cramped refugee camp, using a fictitious wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who is searching for a parentless daughter to call her own, 9-year old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), as together they have a better chance of finding a better life in England, where one of her cousins lives. Traveling on a fake passport, they are fortunate to make it to France, where Dheepan is seen selling cheap trinkets on the streets of Paris, which is initially lit in abstract lights, set to what sounds like medieval church music, where the sumptuous harmonies may as well be a calling out to Heaven, but the colorful lights reveal themselves to be those cheap luminescent headbands that light up in the dark. Nonetheless, they are eventually sent to an unfinished cement block housing project in a banlieue region called “Le Pré.” Given instructions in French, which they don’t understand, he’s assigned as the unit janitor, where he’s expected to keep the entire building clean and in working order.
While the subject of the hardship of refugees couldn’t be more timely, considering the current refugee crisis exploding throughout Europe, Audiard’s skill as a social realist filmmaker is his most pronounced attribute, creating a gripping atmosphere in an already tense situation, using a near documentary style to advance the story, where Illayaal is shunned by the other students at school, and by her makeshift mother as well, who makes no attempt to help her through the transition, feeling no connection to this stranger in her home. Dheepan isn’t exactly embraced with open arms either, as across a small field is another gang-run building complex that is a haven for selling drugs, packed with the constant presence of cars arriving, people hanging out in doorways, and security teams on the roof, where they exist in a world entirely their own, outside all known rules and any police presence, described by Yalini as they watch the constant activity out their window, “How strange, like being at the movies.” Continually called all number of racial insults, Dheepan and his family are at the absolute bottom of the social scale, consisting of Arab castoffs and uneducated white French citizens, where Yalini also needs to find work, eventually assigned as the caretaker of an elderly grandfather suffering from dementia in a building across the way, where she has to pass through the pit bulls and mass of assembled male humanity blocking the entranceway. Still unable to understand or communicate in French, she is late in discovering the apartment where she has been assigned to work is the home of the local drug lord, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), recently released from prison, where the old man she cares for is his ailing father. Doing business out of his living room, which is off limits to her, she sees people constantly coming in and out while she’s basically confined to the kitchen, but she’s earning real money. The home situation is weird, keeping up appearances, as there’s no real emotional connection with any of them, where they just pretend to be a family, actually spending little time together. When Yalini and Dheepan actually have a conversation together, she expresses how nice it is, for a change, as there’s so little of that in their lives. Audiard beautifully stages the moment they finally sleep together, preceded by Dheepan grabbing quick looks as she dries off in the shower, unable to conceal his sexual interest. But he waits until she’s the one that drops her nightdress, leading him nakedly into her bedroom where the screen discreetly fades to black.
In a bizarre scene that suggests the surreal, and perhaps a blurring or fantasy and reality, Dheepan’s old military commander wants to put the unit back together again, but when Dheepan refuses, claiming he has lost everything and the war is over, he is kicked and beaten to a pulp, left on his own to recover, drinking heavily while singing war songs of rage and fury. Making matters worse, all hell breaks loose when a gunfight erupts right in front of their home, sending a terrified child screaming to the ground, bringing back scarred war memories of what they were escaping back home, leaving each of them even more traumatized, literally fearing for their lives. Yalini makes a run for the train station, setting out for England on her own, but Dheepan drags her back in a tearful state, unable to comprehend the ways of this new world, which are juxtaposed with images of an elephant quietly moving through a thick forest in Sri Lanka, perhaps the only peace they’ve ever had in their lives, now uprooted and entirely alone in a violent society that makes no sense. Richly observational in tone, the film downplays any political message and instead accentuates the personal aspects of the immigrant experience, providing an immediacy to their everyday lives, where harrowing circumstances are always pressing up against them, as if thwarting their progress. In one of the many tonal shifts, the three of them get dressed up for a visit to the temple, each wearing brightly colored attire, a quiet moment where the music adds a contemplative counterbalance matching the religious ritual being performed, breaking out into family picnics afterwards, providing a momentary lull before the storm. By all indications, the film gets the first 90-minutes right, revealed without a hint of artificiality, unfolding with a natural dynamic that accumulates intimacy and a familiarity with the characters over time. But something snaps, changing the entire look of the film, becoming a wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy using a heavily stylized atmosphere of sheer violence, as if happening in a fog, or perhaps a dream state, once again blurring the lines between what’s real and imagined, where the director’s decision to go full-blown Hollywood with the ending is simply baffling. While it doesn’t ruin the film, as everything that comes before is so vividly expressed, but it completely shifts the tone, providing a hauntingly peaceful look afterwards that resembles the final scene in Gaspar Noé’s IRREVERSIBLE (2002, actually told in reverse), where the world is revealed as sunny and light, while here unexpected happiness breaks out replacing the psychological horrors of war and forced exile. It’s a stretch, to say the least, requiring a leap of faith from the viewers, and one that Audiard doesn’t earn but simply forces upon us, feeling false, as if arriving out of thin air. It’s a bit more magic than one anticipates, something his other films have carefully avoided, so one wonders why he’s resorted to the purely fantastical in this case, leaving us in the realms of fairy tales and dreams, which suggests perhaps none of this final coda actually happens, but is only imagined. Perhaps only in Heaven.