Tuesday, December 13, 2016

DHEEPAN (2015)

Jacques Audiard's film won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes film festival but was blanked at the César awards, France's equivalent of the Oscars. Audiard already had a bunch of those, though, earning most of them for 2005's The Beat that My Heart Skipped and 2009's A Prophet, the film that really put him over around the world. Dheepan will remind people of Prophet in its use of genre archetypes to illustrate the integration of immigrants into French society.  While Prophet is a gangster film, Dheepan turns out to be a sort of vigilante film, its hero a man with very special skills who gets pushed too far. Audiard supposedly was inspired by Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, but movie buffs may see a more obvious influence by the film's climax.

Dheepan follows a counterfeit family from Sri Lanka (above) to France (below)

The title character is an imposter; Dheepan isn't his real name. Sivadhasan (Jesusthasan Antonythasan) is a Tamil, one of the Hindu minority in Sri Lanka. He is also a Tamil Tiger, a soldier in the revolutionary/terrorist organization credited with inventing suicide bombing. Stuck in a refugee camp as the civil war winds down, he gets an opportunity to emigrate using the passports of a family -- husband, wife and daughter -- who were recently killed. He recruits a woman and girl who can vaguely pass for the people in the passport pictures, and soon enough the newly dubbed Dheepan and his new family are settled in a Paris housing project. It's not much of a family and not much of a life. The daughter, Illayal (Claudine Vinasithamby), is eager to learn French and make friends but is rebuffed by her new schoolmates and gets no emotional support from her aloof maternal unit, Yalini (Kaleaswari Srinivasan). Dheepan becomes a caretaker for the project, his comings and goings strictly regulated by the gangs who run the place, while Yalini becomes a home aide for the invalid father of one of the gangbangers.

Determined to make a home for himself and his quasi-family, Dheepan grows increasingly antagonistic toward the gangs and tries to draw a white line demarcating a "no fire zone" despite the gangs' taunts and threats. But when Yalini is trapped inside her employer's apartment during a gang hit, Dheepan has to cross the line to rescue her, taking a terrible toll with machete, car and gun along the way. Like some other viewers, the climactic rampage/rescue and the too-good-to-be-true vindication that follows, in which Dheepan and Yalini have added a child of their own to the family and appear to be solid citizens of a purged and peaceful project, put me in mind of the ironic denouement of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, in which Travis Bickle's killing spree, both a self-assigned rescue and a venting of frustration after a thwarted political assassination, gets him lionized by the press. By no means is Dheepan another Travis Bickle; our immigrant hero is far more sympathetic and sane than that despite his violent past. But Dheepan's ending is almost self-parodic in its pursuit of a happy ending. You can't help wondering whether Audiard is sincere or if he wants us to question his neatly generic resolution of all the storylines, or wondering why he'd want to throw it all into question. It's an odd false note on which to end an otherwise fine film, informatively observant of life in the projects and also rigorously reticent in its approach to vigilante violence. After Dheepan begins his assault, the camera remains focused tightly on him as he drives through opposition and shoots his way upstairs to save Yalini. Blink and you might miss the body flying past the driver's side window as he plows forward, though you can't miss the bodies that fall at his feet on the stairs. It's a cathartic moment in a film that ultimately seems uncertain of the finality or validity of catharsis, but despite its own uncertainty Dheepan remains a film well worth seeing on the migrant experience that to a great extent defines our time.

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