Jacques Audiard’s sense for the quiet, unspoken power of human connection, even under extreme trauma, is curiously absent from the first third of Dheepan, the most recent Palme d’Or winner and among the most successful of the recent subcycle of films dealing with refugeeism and the politics of migration. The establishing sequences depicting the eponymous Tamil Tiger rebel’s flight from war-torn Sri Lanka and arrival in the rough projects of outer Paris appear as the film’s weakest. A strange placidness pervades the early scenes, whether we see Dheepan (real former Tiger Antonythasan Jesuthasan) burning the bodies of his comrades or, arrived in Europe, his ersatz ‘wife’ Yalini (the amateur Kalieaswari Srinivasan, in a heartbreakingly good performance), mustered in the displacement camps so that both can receive their exit papers, gazing wistfully from their grotty apartment window. As the work mines deeper into the thousand emotional contusions of its characters, and begins to build a powerful and uneasy tension, Audiard’s talent for squeezing raw power from moments of both violence and intimacy comes to the fore. By the end of Dheepan, its pained gauntlet of hope and rage has been so thoroughly traversed by both characters and viewers that one almost misses the seeming banality of its first half-hour – enough to wonder if that was the point all along.
Arguably the greatest strength of Audiard’s work in general has been his understanding of how to walk the precarious line between typically realist and impressionist style in his films, and moreover how to use the interplay of these techniques to create moments of hard, jarring rupture: the prison murder in A Prophet is one of the most acclaimed examples. Here, we are introduced slowly to the ingredients of the plot’s inevitable immolation, mimicking the cautious and hard-earned acceptance of Dheepan’s uneasy family into the Parisian banlieues. His makeshift daughter Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), also truthfully unrelated, frets over her new schoolmates, French homework, and the shock of upheaval from her now-perished real parents. Yalini nervously ties and reties her headscarf. Dheepan himself, their apartment block’s new caretaker, trundles his cleaning cart though the concrete pathways, morose but alert, as though he expects danger at any second. All of this is shot with handheld cameras and natural light, in direct imitation of the kitchen-sink social realism of the Dardennes or Ken Loach. Facial close-ups outnumber wide-frame establishing shots ten to one.
Only when Dheepan and Yalini begin to realise that their surroundings are more deeply mired in crime and violence than first imagined, though, is the film set on an inexorable path of destruction that manifests itself through a more deliberate cinematic style – and marks Dheepan as a standout worthy of its plaudits. Audiard’s stylistic palette is neither radical nor garish – indeed, those instances of ‘rupture’ seep into the film subtly enough to go unnoticed at first. We begin to see sharper cuts, from long tracking shots to loud, murky indoor ones, often to images of Western social trauma no doubt alienating for the Tamil leads – scooters used for drug deals misfire, and fireworks crackle wildly overhead. Key moments of stress and humanity are presented in mesmerising slow motion: one shot, as Dheepan and Yalini finally relent to their base urge for intimacy and make love, shows her already dark body fade sadly into the black of their unlit room, in a powerful metaphor for the anonymity that comes with displacement. The observational camerawork discards any pretence of interest in the built environment and hones in even closer on faces, flesh, and hair.1
When the youths running weapons and drugs out of the project finally bite off more than they can chew and endanger the safety of the already-entangled makeshift family, Dheepan takes their protection into his own hands via a car bomb, a screwdriver, and a stolen pistol. The most intense and horrifying sequence in the film by some margin, the carnival of blood that follows is far from cathartic: mainly shot with struggling bodies all but obscured by both billowing smoke and the frame itself, and showcasing the experience of bloodshed that – we all too often forget – motivates modern refugee crises more than nebulous ideas of hope or opportunism, the film’s apocalyptic finale refuses to let us enjoy the protagonist’s victory and escape. The dexterity with which Audiard manipulates the conclusion of Dheepan, forcing us to reconsider the characters’ tame, hardscrabble attitudes at its beginning, reveals its final political statement. The media-driven dehumanisation of the foreign Other is a knife that cuts both ways: they may soon bear witness to our destruction as we have borne witness to theirs.