Stranger in a Strange Land: ‘Dheepan’

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.


Dheepan, Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Claudine Vinasithamby
Photo Courtesy of Paul Arnaud—A Sundance Selects release

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024