Well, the Powers That Be certainly took their sweet time releasing Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan. You’d think being the recipient of the 2015 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival would have been enough to fast-track any film into wide release. But for whatever reason the film has languished in purgatory for almost an entire year before seeing the light of day here in the States. I could understand holding off on heady, more aggressively “artistic” winners like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).
But Dheepan has been billed as a crime drama. Early word of mouth even compared it to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) in both atmosphere and in its explosive third-act climax of visceral violence. But a different film came to mind as I watched it: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015). Both are films of great ambition and potential power about social inequality. But both are done in by their directors’ inability to properly wrangle the material into something coherent. Whereas High-Rise focused on literal class warfare tearing apart a socially stratified apartment tower, Dheepan follows three Sri Lankan refugees fleeing from civil war to France where they discover similar levels of violence and chaos among their resettled slums—essentially trading the former’s vertical class conflicts for horizontal, racially-tinged ones.
Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), an ex-Tamil Tiger soldier, assumes the identity of a dead man named Dheepan. However, to pass immigration customs as the man he needs a wife and daughter. So he grabs a woman he meets with a cousin in London named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and they shanghai a random orphan off the streets named Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The first hour—easily the strongest in the film—shows them adapting to their strange new home. Their familial arrangement chafes at the three of them; at one point Illayaal has to ask Yalini to kiss her “like the other girls” when she gets dropped off at school. But one of the film’s charms is watching them realize that their situation borne of necessity and convenience might contain some seeds of healing. Maybe “Dheepan” and Yalini can have a future together. Maybe they can even become true parents to Illayaal.
But the last forty minutes sees the film dissolve into a briar-patch of poorly juggled side-plots. “Dheepan’s” old rebel commander appears, demands his help to secure funds for the fight, beats him, and then vanishes for the rest of the film. Yalini starts working as a caretaker of an infirm man whose nephew is a crime boss engaged in a gang war with…somebody. Firefights and robberies engulf their neighborhood and “Dheepan” starts to mentally lose it, reverting to his rebel mindset. He draws a chalk “safe zone” in the middle of the neighborhood, is repeatedly shown welding something in a small room and steals Yalini’s passport. Illayaal practically disappears. These scenes seem like puzzle pieces smashed into the wrong places; there’s rarely a sense of overarching order. By the end, the film becomes almost completely unintelligible.
All I’m gonna say is that it looks like I can now officially say that Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (2015) was robbed of the Palme.