The latest film from writer-director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) is a sober, utterly compelling look at a man who flees from his native Sri Lanka—and its brutal civil war—to start a new life in Paris. But this is no ordinary fish-out-of-water story. Dheepan (the leading character’s name) is a man who is desperate for peace and solace in his life.
In order to be granted asylum in France, he finds a woman to pose as his wife; she in turn has already abducted an orphaned girl to pretend to be her daughter. Together, this faux family makes its way to a new country where they don’t speak the language and barely communicate with each other. In time, Dheepan secures a job as a caretaker at a suburban housing project. He isn’t afraid of hard work, but he’s warned to keep his nose out of the “business” going on around him, especially in a building just across a patch of lawn. This is drug-dealing territory and the men involved are ruthless and violent.
As with Audiard’s other films, there comes a point where you stop thinking about the moviemaking process and become immersed in the characters’ lives, as if they were real. The “wife” is the most uncertain of the protagonists, forever threatening to leave for England, where she has a cousin. The “daughter” doesn’t fit in at school, at first, but finally settles in, and even forges a familial relationship with Dheepan.
But finding that peace is elusive for all of them, especially Dheepan, who is haunted by the violence of war he has experienced in Sri Lanka. Eventually he reaches a breaking point where the past and present blur together.
Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who plays the leading role, is not a professional actor, but he eloquently conveys the character’s feelings of solitude and frustration, as well as his dream that he and the women he lives with might form a genuine family.
Audiard provides a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint of everything that transpires, which makes the film both intimate and heartbreaking. He and co-writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré clearly know the dramatic turf they are depicting and bring it to life with visceral effectiveness. Dheepan is a film that goes for the gut as well as the heart.