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Palme d’Or-winner ‘Dheepan’ brings migrant drama to French screens

With “Dheepan”, his Palme d’Or-winning effort which opened in French cinemas on Wednesday, Cannes habitué Jacques Audiard delivers half of a good movie on Tamil refugees leaving one war in Sri Lanka only to find another in France.


Audiard’s triumph caused something of an upset at the 68th Cannes Film Festival, where many critics felt “Dheepan” fell well short of the French filmmaker’s previous efforts, such as his acclaimed “A Prophet”, which picked up the Grand Prix in 2009. But Cannes prides itself in being the world’s premier film event and few topics could claim to be of greater relevance today than the trials of refugees fleeing a war-torn country to find a chilling welcome in Europe.

“Dheepan” opens with a sequence in Sri Lanka, circa 2009, as the country’s civil war draws to a close. The defeated Tamil Tigers are burning the bodies of their comrades and trading military fatigues for civilian clothes. One of them, Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), forms a fake family with a woman and a girl found in a refugee camp and escapes to France.

The unlikely trio eventually settle down in a run-down housing estate ruled by drug dealers, where Dheepan lands a job as the building’s caretaker. His “wife” Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) also finds work looking after the aging uncle of a ganglord, while the young Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) has a rough time adapting to the local school.

Eve Jackson talks to Jacques Audiard about "Dheepan" and winning the Palme d'Or

The film is powered by stirring performances from the Sri Lankan cast, and their tentative attempts to create the intimacy of a real family in a volatile environment give rise to the movie’s most touching and successful scenes.

Jesuthasan has stressed the parallels between Dheepan’s itinerary and his own extraordinary story, which included stints as Tiger, peace campaigner, and political prisoner; an escape to Europe via India using forged papers; and a host of low-paid jobs in the Paris area as cook, dish washer, construction worker and even bellhop at Euro Disney.

“This story is a bit like my own, and also of all refugees,” he said. “Like Dheepan I arrived in France with a false passport, I also worked many illegal jobs, and before that I was confronted with the same violence when I fought for the Tamil Tigers.”

From left to right: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Jacques Audiard, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan attend the "Dheepan" premiere in Cannes.
From left to right: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Jacques Audiard, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan attend the "Dheepan" premiere in Cannes.

Audiard has said his film is not about civil war or France’s derelict banblieues (suburbs), but about a fledgling family’s struggle in a harsh and alien environment. But the pretence of realism that accompanies the film’s opening scenes fits uncomfortably with the melodramatic action and violence typical of the Frenchman's cinema.

Viewers will get a sketchy impression of France’s asylum process, and will learn little or nothing about the large Tamil community that has found a bustling new home in northern Paris. There are merely hints at the presence of other Sri Lankan Tamils in the area, including a brief and ugly encounter with a “colonel” who attacks Dheepan for giving up on the Tigers’ cause.

The protagonist’s repressed guerrilla instincts resurface in the film’s latter part as the housing estate slides into war, but the transition is far from seamless, as is the somewhat unsubtle juxtaposition of Sri Lanka’s gruesome civil war and France’s “no-go-zone” suburbs – at one stage featuring the protagonist slicing his way through the banlieue gangs as though he were an "American Sniper" picking off Iraqi insurgents like wild turkey.

Audiard reportedly finished his film just in time for submission to the festival. Its finale was clearly rushed and ill-conceived, capping the family drama with an astonishingly clumsy comparison between France’s flawed integration model and a bizarrely idyllic vision of Britain as a sunny, flowery Eden where all faiths and races live in harmony.

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