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Festival de Cannes 2015 Review: Dheepan

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Director: Jacques Audiard

Writers: Noé Debré, Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard

Starring: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers, Marc Zinga

Synopsis: As he sees defeat in the Sri Lankan civil war, Tamil freedom fighter, Dheephan (Antonythasan), decides to flee, taking a woman (Srinivasan) and a small girl (Vinasithamby) with him in hope they will better his chances for asylum. Setting up in Paris, Dheephan gets a job as a caretaker in a housing block, but all the violence he escaped comes back in the form of gang wars happening around his new home. His warrior instincts are ignited once again in order to help his new-formed family.

Resurfacing at Cannes three years after Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard brings another powerful drama to the judges, poles apart from what he’s done before. Dheephan is a Sri Lankan story based in suburban Paris, dealing with conflict, war and identity. The interesting plotline must have been a real draw for the French director, even though it concentrates on another race, language and way of life.

As the synopsis outlines above, this is a bi-lingual, cross-country journey that bears no descent of Audiard’s heritage. Knowing who the director is makes it more intriguing (like Scorsese making Kundun), to see the interpretation and handling of another culture. Not much takes place in Sri Lanka so it is predominantly a French movie, though it bases itself on a foreign point of view. The immigrant story, shown in the midst of a gang turf war is oddly fitting, especially with the civil war element at the start. Every country has these conflicts – as is the main message – and there are ways to overcome it. Audiard studies this in dozens of scenes, careful not to tread too heavily on any given attitude.

By and large, Dheepan is a hero story, with one very flawed protagonist. Dheepan is unable to deal with the new family – viewing it as a mere beard to his asylum, or as an actual chance at happiness. The conflicting emotions drive many scenes, and inject a lot of the tension. You may have the gangland violence to keep you bolt upright in your seat, but the domestic issues are the real draw. Jesuthasan Antonythasan and Kalieaswari Srinivasan are electric together, stepping over boundaries within their relationship and the gang group, igniting all sorts of passions. They are lovable and deceitful in equal measure, and the casting for these characters has been dead right.

Juliette Welfling’s editing threads these chaotic interactions with precision. All throughout, the pace is tempered to the moment perfectly. You have a macabre opening and a bold finish, with a meaty mid-section of tantrums and growth. Audiard is in full swing here, yet something feels missing. It may be that odd side-stories are encouraged to get developed (such as the little girl’s perspective in all this), that get sadly forgotten. Perhaps in the editing these had to be cut (as the film does run over 2 hours), leaving some minor ellipsis felt. Not every film can be perfect, and Dheepan comes close to one of the best in competition this year.

Audiard is one of France’s finest directors currently working, always challenging himself with new material – this defines that idea. Dheepan has moments of predictability, saved thanks to two strong lead performances and accomplished arrangement.

4-out-of-5

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