Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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CLAUDINE VINASITHAMBY AND JESUTHASAN ANTHONYTHASAN IN DHEEPAN

A difficult blend still shows Audiard's mastery

In Dheepan Audiard seeks to do something new -- focus on a major social problem -- but does it in much his usual way -- by a fusion of genres. He takes the plight of refugees of war, Tamil people fleeing Sri Lanka in a fake family unit of convenience (unrelated man, woman, and 9-year-old girl) escaping via traffickers to France, where they're put in the care of the social welfare system. Then, he plunks them down in a seedy Paris cité in the extra-peripheral banlieue. The man, the titular Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), a former Tamil Tiger squadron leader, is made the new caretaker ("guardien"). The threatening presence of warring young drug dealers allows the filmmaker to consequently blend in elements of a gangster action movie. Insofar as the mix works, it's through our visceral identification with our exotic three lead characters and the phantasmagorical shocks and transformations they must naturally go through as they make the slow, painful adjustment to exile and a new life. The story doesn't completely work. But it's buttressed by Audiard's mature assurance and formidable cinematic invention and by very authentic actors. And it certainly escapes the clichés of more conventional French émigré movies like Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's recent Samba. Dheepan won the top prize Palme d'Or at Cannes this year.

The actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who is more a writer, actually was a Tamil Tiger child soldier and political activist who fled to France with a fake passport and worked at many menial jobs; he says the role of Dheepan is 50% autobiographical. Kalieaswari Srinivasan, who plays Yalini, Dheepan's "wife," is a theater actress.

Besides the fusion of genres there is the fusion of the fake relationships into real ones as Dheepan, Yalini and their "daughter" Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) become an emotionally-bonded unit. This begins when the adults take Illayaal to school and she begs them not to leave her: she thinks she is being abandoned again; she has no family. Living in close proximity at the cité, Dheepan and Yalini slowly begin to have real conversations and then later to feel some physical attraction to each other. Vinasithamby is a beautiful girl who is the story's first ray of hope. Immediately placed in an assimilation class like the one depicted in Julie Bertucelli's 2013 French documentary The School of Babel , she quickly begins learning French and can help the struggling Dheepan. He doesn't understand much of the instructions on his guardien duties (which he however soon performs more than well), or the talk of local cronies, or the key explanation of a young drug dealer operative who is part of a cadre of outsiders hired by the drug overlords expressly because they are indifferent to local loyalties, interests, and lives. Much of the middle of the film is focused on these half-understood French conversations, with the "family's" Tamil talk in the background in their little home unit as they fight and reconcile. Audard is skillful in communicating with sound, image, and editing the start-stop mixture of shock, dislocation, and adjustment the three refugees are experiencing.

Yalini, sullen and diissatisfied because she wants to join relatives in England, is the last to acquire any French. She is sent to work, against her will at first, caring in an apartment in the building (for a to her astronomical €500 per month) for a certain Monsieur Habib (Faouzi Bensaïdi) a listless, almost catatonic man. This job acquires linchpin significance in the developing drug lord tale when Habib's son Brahim arrives, fresh from jail, wearing an ankle monitor. Brahim is played by the charismatic (but not very Arab-looking) Belgian actor Vincent Rottiers, who likes Yalini's cooking and seems drawn to her.

When war breaks out between the local young drug gangsters and the outsider ones, things become almost as violent as the world the trio have left behind. But not quite. And anyway, there is nowhere to go. Ironic though it may be, this is where their hope lies. Here Dheepan plays a brave pivotal role that seems somewhat farfetched; and there is a finale that some may find too optimistic. But then such was the hopeful finale of Audiard's The Beat My Heart Skipped/De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, his brilliant "remake" (as he called it, more a transformation) of James Toback's bleaker debut feature Fingers. One might also note that the director's earlier Read My Lips/Sur mes lèvres (starring Emmanuelle Devos and Vincent Cassel) was a foreshadowing of what he does here, because it's a bold fusion of two elements not unlike Dheepan's -- a romance with a handicapped person and a crime story.

Where I liked most in Dheepan apart from Audard's way with his Tamil actors is the manner in which he conveys a sense of dislocation through surreal transitions and slo-mo. I'm still debating the possibility that his screenwriting collaborations with Tonino Benaquista (on Read My Lips and The Beat might have been more successful than the subsequent more recent ones with Thomas Bidegain. But then, with Bidegain he did A Prophet, arguably his masterpiece (so far). But Audiard is just not fully in his element here. Cannes was partly rewarding past accomplishments and present good intentions.

Dheepan, 110 mins., debuted at Cannes, where it won the Palme d'Or. Over 15 other international festivals, including London, where it was screened for this review. Not the NYFF. French release 26 Aug. 2015, to good, but not rave, reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.6). Bought for US release by IFC. UK theatrical realese 4 Mar. 2016.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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