June 7 2016 05:16 PM

Jacque Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner features misguided politics about assimilation and Western salvation


In Dheepan, Jacques Audiard's lumbering drama that won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, three Sri Lankan refugees flee their war-torn country for a "better" life in France. The current migrant crisis in Europe provides the film with certain relevance by association, but its views toward social assimilation and compromise are misguided at best. Not a moment goes by where the seriousness of this situation isn't profoundly expressed through the obvious aesthetics of cinema. Slow motion anyone?

Posing as the husband of Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and the father of traumatized orphan Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), battle hardened Tamil warrior Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is the silent but deadly type, his eyes hiding a soul marked by trauma and rage. The makeshift family lies and bribes their way onto a boat only to find little respite once across the Mediterranean. After selling trinkets on the streets of Paris, the trio is relocated to sprawling state-funded projects in the countryside.

In typical Audiard fashion (this is the man who made Rust and Bone), misery is met with more misery. While a diverse cross-section of blue-collar folk occupies one block of apartments, another is infested with drug dealers and thugs. Dheepan finds himself caught in the middle as the new caretaker for both structures. Yalini takes a job cooking and cleaning for the invalid father of the smooth talking kingpin (Vincent Rottiers), further complicating their new living situation.

All three of the film's lead characters attempt to reclaim some kind of routine despite subtle racism and language barriers. Initially, Audiard seems content to simply watch this process unfold, examining Illayaal's experiences at school and Dheepan's building camaraderie with other disaffected men. Yalini's perspective is given far less complexity; she's essentially relegated to a curious "otherî" who can't help but be drawn to the power of her gangster employer. Watching the hooligans conduct business from afar, she comments, "How strange, like being at the movies."

There's a hallucinatory aspect to the film's sense of time. Multiple shots are framed in darkness only to reveal an animal or person slowly coming into focus. Audiard wants these moments to have a profound visual impact on the viewer, to build mood out of obscured and dreamlike imagery. Yet it has the opposite effect, instilling a sense of artificial tunnel vision in an otherwise gritty worldview. The filmmaker managed to balance these competing tones in his prison drama A Prophet, but here it reeks of dishonesty.

Even worse, the characters are inflicted with a series of melodramatic turns that blatantly contrast the meager good times with the bad. Glimmers of familial pride and chemistry are quickly bludgeoned to death. Turmoil within the gang world escalates, conveniently turning the entire apartment complex into a warzone, not unlike the killing fields Dheepan left behind. Here, Audiard's simplistic and easy view of modern politics is revealed. For all refugees, life is about going from the frying pan into the fire.

With the subtlety of a falling cinder block, Dheepan concludes guns blazing, like an unthinking Taxi Driver without no subtext or sting. It's an insulting climax to a film that claims to have an interest in the deepening complications produced by social and cultural assimilation. But Audiard isn't concerned with nuance, only the spectacle of raw social justice.

Opening on Friday, June 10, the film manufactures hope and multiculturalism through emotional theatrics not limited to violence. It promises a new European utopia where this kind of manipulative imagery flourishes. As a result, Audiard destroys the need for nuance in a conversation where itís needed most. "Did you end up believing the story?" Yalini asks Dheepan when their relationship status turns complicated. It's a fair question we could also throw back at the film itself, because nothing here rings true.


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