David Jenkins

Dheepan – first look review

Jacques Audiard follows up Rust and Bone with a nuanced and gratifying immigration tale.

There’s a self-important swagger to the cinema of French darling Jacques Audiard which I’ve never been able to fully abide. His default mode is garish bombast, and his unquenchable lust for recreational artfulness often leads to cinematic necessities such as honesty and emotion getting lost in the flash. His previous feature, Rust and Bone, almost felt more like an effects movie than a purportedly intimate drama set on the fringes of society.

With his new feature, Dheepan, it seems like someone has grabbed him by the velvet lapels, dispensed a few light slaps to his grizzled chops, and demanded he shape up or ship out. For its first hour, you’d be hard pressed to guess that it was Audiard behind the tiller, so unassumingly rigorous is the film’s sense of character and place, and so pleasantly absent are those formative predilections for apropos-of-nothing camera whizz-bangery.

There is, however, one admittedly amazing trick shot early on where our eponymous hero (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), having managed to flee from Sri Lanka (where he was engaged as a foot soldier in the Tamil Tigers) to France, begins a new life selling novelty trinkets from a suitcase on a street. All we see is flashing blue and red lights on a black backdrop, and it looks as if an aeroplane landing at night which, in terms of continuity, would seem wholly logical. But it’s actually the LEDs from plastic rabbit ears worn by a trio of vendors who go on to hector diners seated at a restaurant. It’s a rare moment of high style which contains a clever punchline, so on this occasion, we’ll let it slide.

Dheepan is, for the large majority of its runtime, a satisfyingly even-handed and non-judgmental exploration of the immigrant experience. It’s not an overtly political film, though Audiard makes it easy to extrapolate the actions of his characters and easily place them into the current news agenda. For the most part, it sets its stall is being remarkably pro immigration, offering reason after reason why healthy western economies should do their utmost to offer aid people from more politically volatile global territories. In fact, it’s not so much offering aid, more offering the means for basic self-empowerment.

Alongside his fake wife Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) and fake daughter Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), hastily assembled to fit the profiles of a stack of passports whose owners have no further use for them (ie, killed), the ill-matched trio are placed in a grubby suburban housing tenement which plays host to regular bouts of gang-related gunplay. Yet they get on with the tasks at hand, “husband” taking on the role of caretaker, “mother” the role of social carer and “daughter” as inquisitive schoolgirl. There’s a bracing honesty to the way Audiard presents his characters as earning the trust of the local community for way they work tirelessly to improve lives; ad hominem attacks on race or class are rarer than might have been expected.

A nervous tension is generated with regard to how long Audiard is going to be able to keep all this good work up, how long he’s going to be able to reign in his grandiose tendencies. Yet, as prior qualifications may have hinted, things do go majorly down hill in its botched final act. Minor key observation is now hulking plot-twists and blood-sprayed shoot-outs, which gives us a chance to see Dheepan’s old self, when he was torturing, maiming and killing as part of a rebel militia. This doesn’t merely bring with it a cumbersome tonal shift, but undoes a lot of the highly nuanced and enlightened political discourse from earlier on. It’s doubly disappointing because everything before it was extremely impressive. Let’s hope we see more of Audiard’s new leaf.

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