Cast: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers

Director: Jacques Audiard

Writers: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré

Dheepan generated some controversy last year when it was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes over such contenders as Carol, Son of Saul and The Assassin. Since it hadn’t been regarded by many critics as a potential winner for the prestigious prize, I was curious to see what it was that won over the jury chaired by the Coen brothers. One factor that springs to mind is the writer and director Jacques Audiard whose work has been positively received by the Cannes Film Festival in the past, particularly A Prophet which won the Jury Prize. There is also the cultural relevance of its subject to consider as it depicts the story of refugees fleeing a country ravaged by civil war. Perhaps the reason why Dheepan was initially overlooked as a potential winner is because its greatness is not as immediately apparent as in some of the other nominated films. Whatever the reason, the film’s victory at Cannes had an undeniable effect on my expectations when I went to see it and it is very possible that I might have missed it otherwise. For that reason I am glad that it won.

The film follows Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), a Tamil Tiger soldier in a devastated Sri Lanka, who is desperate to flee the country and seek asylum in France. To do so he must assume the identity of Dheepan, a dead refugee, and requires a wife and daughter as part of his cover. These roles are assumed by Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and 9-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) neither of whom have any connection with him or each other. Together they settle in a housing project in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais where ‘Dheepan’ finds a job as a caretaker. Yalini meanwhile finds work caring for the elderly father of a local drug dealer and Illayaal is sent to school. In his attempt to build a new life for himself in a foreign country with two complete strangers, Dheepan finds that the scars and trauma of the life he lived in Sri Lanka is not something that he can easily leave behind or escape.

Dheepan is certainly an understated film as it takes its time with displaying the daunting struggle of its three characters. Even when they have settled in a place miles away from the ruin and destruction of their homeland, they still live in a constant state of fear and panic. All three are haunted by the civil war they are trying to escape but must now face a trauma of a different kind; that of being sent to a foreign place with a people they do not know speaking a language they do not understand. There they must live a lie for fear of being found and sent back. Not only is the prospect of being discovered an ever-present threat but their housing project is also the centre of operations for a drug crew engaged in a conflict with a rival gang. Essentially Dheepan and his ‘family’ have escaped one conflict zone only to find themselves in another. Through this whole experience they suffer from disorientation, isolation and alienation as they struggle to cope with the everyday as well as with each other.

All three of the film’s central actors deliver astonishing performances as their remarkably complex characters. Antonythasan, himself a former member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, was doubtless able to draw upon his own experiences in bringing this character to life. We are never given any substantial information on Dheepan’s background, but it is clear from his performance that he is scarred by his memories. Through his expressions one can find guilt for crimes committed, grief for losses felt and pain for wounds suffered. Yalini meanwhile longs for escape and makes it clear that she is only looking out for herself. She feels no obligation to either Dheepan or Illayaal, viewing them merely as cohabitants, and will only talk to them on topics of necessity. Such a harsh environment would be an ordeal for any child to go through, but Illayaal proves surprisingly resilient. As a French speaker she finds it easier to settle in than either of her parents do and, despite some moments of difficulty for her, she does manage to achieve a sense of normalcy.

The majority of the film is simply about the family dealing with the struggles of living a normal life under astoundingly abnormal circumstances. They must learn to live with each other, they must adapt to an alien culture, they must face the dangers that plague them in their new home and they must struggle with the trauma of their past lives. The third act is when these conflicting tensions all finally explode as the plot takes a course that many will find jarring and that some will even dismiss as unwarranted. The development reminded me of the climax in Audilard’s Rust and Bone where the father and son’s time together takes a sudden, ominous turn as the son without warning falls through the ice into the lake. What follows is a stunning sequence which makes particularly marvellous use of sound. Whether the ending is one that the film has earned is up to the viewer to decide. I myself found Dheepan to be a slow burner that grew more compelling and absorbing over time and that was ultimately very satisfying to watch. Its victory at Cannes was well deserved.