Jacques Audiard is perhaps the only filmmaker in France who makes art-house films that could and should be successful Hollywood blockbusters. In his 2009 movie A Prophet, a green newly convicted felon is forced to commit a murder and from there gradually works his way up the ranks of the prisoners—it would fit perfectly on AMC daytime programming, right between First Blood and The Matrix. Rust and Bone (2012) is one of the most moving love stories of the past decade, and it stars trendy A-listers Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. And his latest work, Dheepan, is about a former soldier for the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (aka the Tamil Tigers) who immigrates to France along with a woman and child, only to end up in a rural housing project that doubles as an open-air drug market—on paper, it's like a prestige war picture meets an immigration saga crossed with the first season of The Wire.
But Audiard's movies all have twists that keep them in the art-house realm. The hero of A Prophet is Muslim, and the film is in some ways about Arab-Europeans triumphing over white Europeans who treat them poorly. Yes, Cotillard stars in Rust and Bone, but she loses her legs in the first 20 minutes; though the setting is beachside France, the protagonists are relatively poor and have bizarre careers (a whale trainer at a Sea World-style park; an amateur bare-knuckles boxer). And both efforts feature the kind of understated, albeit rich, handheld camerawork that's become ubiquitous in the past ten to 15 years, from Olivier Assayas's oeuvre to the Romanian New Wave to the Amazon series Transparent. In other words, Audiard addresses issues in present-day France obliquely—in a manner that can be, to his detractors, frustrating and noncommittal—and Dheepan continues this trend, with some significant departures.
Dheepan opens with Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), a former Tamil soldier, burning his uniform on a pile of palm fronds, which not so artfully obscure human remains. He puts on civilian clothes, presumably from one of the corpses, and finds a woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) who's trying to leave Sri Lanka, who in turn scares up a young girl (Claudine Vinasithamby) who lost all her immediate family in the war. They are given the real passports of a deceased family and assume their identities: father Dheepan, mother Yalini, and daughter Illayaal. After fleeing to France, they're temporarily placed in an immigration holding center (Dheepan illegally sells trinkets on the streets of Paris to support them), where a Tamil translator, sympathetic to the Tigers and aware of Dheepan's past, helps place them in a rural housing project and lands the patriarch a job as its caretaker.
The first two-thirds of Dheepan operates as a subdued, subtle art film about the struggles of this misbegotten family in their new home. Dheepan and Yalini endeavor to learn French and behave as a couple. Illayaal acts out in school, understandable considering what she's been through, yet Dheepan and Yalini don't know how to be parents. On the periphery, the housing project has been taken over by gangs and drug dealers, and Yalini becomes a housemaid for a resident whose son (Vincent Rottiers), recently released from prison, appears to be the kingpin. Audiard films all of this tenderly, and at times rapturously—in one scene the camera follows Dheepan as he prepares to sweep the courtyard, then glides upward to reveal the colorful autumn trees and the landscape behind the apartment towers; for a brief moment the location is peaceful, even idyllic.
Audiard secures outstanding performances from his cast, who are at least partially responsible for Dheepan's tonal success. In real life, Antonythasan was a Tamil Tiger (before the faction turned violent) who immigrated to France, where he became a successful author—his novels, which are unrelated to the film, mostly address the civil war in Sri Lanka. Though Dheepan is only his second screen role, his performance is exceptionally natural, easy to empathize with despite Dheepan's conflicted origins. Srinivasan's portrayal of Yalini is just as formidable and perhaps more complex—the character's origins are never relayed, yet her impetuousness and confidence make her personality more textured and comprehensible. And Rottiers contributes a strong supporting turn as the drug lord whose charms are always cut with just the right amount of menace.
Dheepan won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes film festival, but you'd hardly know reviewers enjoyed it, judging from film-critic Twitter (sample tweet: "DHEEPAN, a perfectly fine, unremarkable drama, is the most surprising Palme d'Or winner in recent memory, and certainly the least deserving" ); or the line from The Independent that says that the victory "left some critics scratching their heads"; or a mostly laudatory Indiewire review David Ehrlich leads off by writing, "No, 'Dheepan' probably shouldn't have won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival."
Most of the disagreement hinges on a significant narrative decision made by Audiard and co-screenwriters Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, and having seen Dheepan twice with different people each time, I'd say that this aspect of the film is a love-it-or-hate-it pivot point for audiences. (Minor spoilers ahead.) In its third act, Dheepan jarringly mutates into a bullet-filled hybrid of Taxi Driver and A History of Violence as Dheepan takes on the drug dealers who've trapped Yalini in the apartment of the invalid she assists. This imbalance between the two parts of the movie is unusual for Audiard, who executed the complicated story lines of A Prophet and Rust and Bone with remarkable fluidity.
Because of the deftness with which Audiard handled his prior efforts, the dissonant final third of Dheepan is ostensibly deliberate. The movie is an extension, and in some ways a combination, of the narratives in A Prophet and Rust and Bone. As with A Prophet, the hero of the story is an outsider, both his immediate surroundings and in France generally, who gradually takes back his agency by exacting revenge on people who've wronged him. And like Rust and Bone, Dheepan is a melodrama in which sudden plot shifts mirror the tumult of the protagonists' situations. And similar to Audiard's recent films, the director's experiments with narrative control reflect the main characters' attempts to take control of their own lives.
Joel and Ethan Coen headed the jury that awarded Dheepan the Palme d'Or, which makes sense: like Audiard, the Coens make commercial films with art-house tendencies. But whereas the Coens at times mock their characters or certain social classes or ethnicities, Audiard doesn't attempt to generalize about or caricature anyone—he simply provides opportunities for actors that are generally unavailable to them. Dheepan isn't as focused or invigorating as A Prophet or Rust and Bone—and it doesn't have very much to say about Sri Lanka or even immigration in France, its purported topical concerns. Yet while there are many movies like the Coen brothers', ones like Audiard's are rare. His films are never as predictable or familiar as most commercial fare or the arty sort of cinema that generates buzz on the festival circuit. Dheepan occupies that rare, often enjoyable space in between. v