starring Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Vincent Rottiers, Claudine Vinasithamby
screenplay by Noé Debré, Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard
directed Jacques Audiard
by Bill Chambers "Well, not exactly," a critic acquaintance gently scoffed after I shrugged that Dheepan was "y'know, Taxi Driver." ("So Dheepan is basically the second time Taxi Driver's won the Palme d'or," I snarked on the Twitter.) He's a grinder, and I respect the hell out of grinders--the ones who see everything and interview everybody and indefatigably churn out coverage: They are the heavyweight champions of the film-festival circuit. But they are a literalminded bunch (they have to be, for efficiency's sake), and the Taxi Driver parallels are admittedly by no means 1:1. In Dheepan, three refugees of a Sri Lankan military conflict form a makeshift family out of stolen identities in order to start a new life abroad. They land in France, where "Dheepan" (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) scores a job as the caretaker of an apartment complex, finds "wife" Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) work as a housekeeper to one of the building's tenants, and enrols 9-year-old "daughter" Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) in public school. Yalini, still in the prime of her youth, bristles at having to maintain the charade, particularly the fact that she's become an insta-mom, with Dheepan direly overestimating her maternal instincts and capacity for sentiment. Of all the women he could've been paired with, he got Kelly Kapoor.
Slowly, however, these impostors begin to coalesce as a family unit. There's a beautiful moment before it all comes crashing down--indeed, just before (A Prophet director Jacques Audiard knows what he's doing)--where Illayaal gives Dheepan a flower and he passes it on to Yalini, connecting the three like points on a triangle. First, Dheepan's snakelike army commander resurfaces, kicking up his PTSD a notch; then tensions, racial and otherwise, escalate between the neighbourhood ruffians--who squat in a room Dheepan's expected to clean, on their schedule--and not only Dheepan, but some other gang as well, leading to a firefight that reminds Yalini a little too much of home. Dheepan eventually erupts like Mt. Bickle on all the neighbourhood filth, but it's the film's coda that brings the Taxi Driver comparisons into sharpest relief: a hard reset that nevertheless feels like a coma dream, though it's even more hyper-idealized than the backseat absolution Travis receives from Betsy. There's a subjective quality to it that suggests this is Dheepan's version of a happy ending, distinct from Dheepan itself. It makes you feel good, yet oddly not coddled or deceived. The tormented Dheepan at peace is a lovely thing to see, with or without context.
There's something regrettable, though, about Dheepan's genre trappings when its premise is so unique. The phrase "gilding the lily" comes to mind: The film is wonderful at conjuring, as opposed to contriving, a sense of dislocation and paranoia that must be intrinsic to the immigrant experience (illegal and otherwise), where every interaction involves a threat assessment of sorts. Once the guns come out, it loses a healthy sense of ambiguity, and the players become chess pieces thrust into position for the climax, which means the already disappointingly-shortchanged Illayaal is all but completely phased out of the narrative. Audiard is a quasi-exploitation filmmaker at heart, alas, but his direction is elegant, at times breathtakingly so. And with Srinivasan, he has crafted a character to be emulated. Yalini is alternately cold and warm, mousy and courageous, selfish and selfless, dense and wise, etc., but these are dimensions, not contradictions. She's something the screen too rarely allows women to be: fully human. Not to take anything away from Jesuthasan's powerful work. Programme: Special Presentations