Director Jacques Audiard seems to revel in telling the stories of outsiders. Both Rust and Bone and A Prophet went down this route and Dheepan is no exception. The film opens in Sri Lanka, in 2009, at the end of the savage civil war that had lasted twenty five years and claimed more than 80,000 lives. A defeated Tamil Tiger soldier (Jesusthasan Antonythasan), has realised that the only way he can hope to stay alive is to flee the country. At the departure camp, he is hastily put together with a woman he has never met before (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and an orphaned girl (Claudine Vinasithamby), so they can use the passports of three dead people. Their new names are Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal.
Yalini longs to go to England where her sister lives, but instead they end up in France, where Dheepan has been offered work as a caretaker – but this is a part of France that’s never going to feature in the tourist brochures, a broken down, lawless community where drug gangs rule and where the police never deign to show their faces. Dheepan goes doggedly about his business trying to make friends, while Yalini is offered work looking after an elderly man, whose son, Brahim (Vincent Rottier) is a drug kingpin, recently released from a spell in jail and using his father’s home as a base. Meanwhile, Illayaal is enrolled at a local school where she sets about trying to fit in with the other children, but she is seen as an outsider and struggles to make headway. But can three strangers thrown together in this way ever hope to function as a family?
Dheepan is a fascinating study of the lives of refugees, one that never makes the mistake of falling into cliche. The three lead protagonists feel like real people, with real hopes and real ambitions. Even when the story descends into violence – an inevitability you can feel looming over the story like a terrible premonition – it avoids all the usual Hollywood action-movie tropes to offer something that feels horribly real. The film’s optimistic coda has been derided by some critics as being unrealistic but they’re surely missing the point – this is just another heartfelt dream that is never going to be achieved.
Dheepan is a brilliant and deeply affecting film. See it but don’t expect a chucklefest. This is a bleak tale by a master storyteller.