I watched Dheepan this week, the film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year – made by acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard (The Prophet, Rust and Bone among others). This is a masterful film in so many ways. Over the years, I’ve become very familiar with the issue of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. The Tamil characters in the film are the people I meet regularly in my other job as interpreter for refugees suffering from post-traumatic stress. And in essence, that is the theme of the film – of how a man is haunted by his demons and slowly manages to survive and start afresh.
The lies begin early on in the journey of the three lost souls in this story. Initially we see a woman rushing around a refugee camp in Sri Lanka looking for a nine-year-old girl who’d fit her requirement. She intends to go with a man whom she doesn’t know as his wife to escape her war-torn country. The three take on the names on the passports of dead people and the pretend family end up in France, in a grim Paris banlieu (suburb) on the outskirts of the city.
So, it was still a little shocking to watch an early scene in the film with the interpreter, who suspects that the refugee is lying, tells him off and then advises him to frame a better story. I’ve always been conscious that the interpreter’s role is a position of power and at risk of being abused easily. Dheepan is really Sivathasan, a Tamil Tiger who fought the Sri Lankan army in the civil war. A trained soldier, he takes on the job of a caretaker, cleaning and sweeping to eke out a living. His pretend wife also gets a job as a cook and cleaner in an old man’s flat where she befriends his nephew, a dubious character with a criminal record, wearing an electronic tag so that the authorities know his whereabouts.
For a while, we are shown the realities of the struggle of refugees in a foreign land – almost banal and also repetitive. Slowly, the personal dynamics change and the two adults find that they are attracted to each other. The child struggles with being accepted in school – she is bright and is a fast learner and there are some special moments where she has to explain to her French teacher that her school in Sri Lanka was burnt down, when she turns violent when the other girls don’t want to accept her into their group and then, mature beyond her years, when she asks her pretend mother who doesn’t feel maternal towards her at all, to treat her with the same consideration she might show her brothers.
But Dheepan is still haunted by his demons and this we see as a slow build-up. There are some beautiful surreal moments, especially when an elephant appears in his dreams in close-up – its massive head swaying gently as it looks at him with wise eyes. He gets beaten and punched by a former colonel from the LTTE whom he meets at a picnic after an outing to the temple. The man tries to coax him to amass weapons to resume fighting for the cause. When Dheepan says the war was over, the man turns violent. The scene where he’s getting drunk listening to Nila adhu vaanathu melai from the Tamil remake of Godfather, Nayagan was a fabulous piece of direction. And then suddenly it explodes into this fantastic final act which is deeply disturbing but absolutely plausible. Of course, the film makes England out to be the promised land for Tamil people which is a bit of a stretch of the imagination for people who know better. For a start, refugees in his position are not allowed to work at all in the UK.
Now, I’m no intellectual existentialist, capable of dissecting the ‘nouvelle vague‘ (New Way) cinema in a puff of Gauloise, nursing a dark espresso in a Parisian cafe, beautifully situated on the Left Bank along the Seine. Pardon! Cliches a little de trop, bien sur 🙂 but if I could use this opportunity for some fawning about films from across the channel, in general. There’s a certain fine quality that strikes you while watching a French film, possibly because of the emphasis on keeping things real. When you see the person on screen scraping food off the plate, washing up or having a shower, you believe it is the actual character doing it and not just an accomplished actor performing a role with the right props. Somehow, the actors become the people they portray, in French cinema.
Then there’s the light touch in framing a scene. In Bright Days Ahead (Les Beaux Jours), a 65-year-old woman, a retired dentist (played by Fanny Ardant) with adult daughters decides to confess her guilty secret of having an affair with a much younger man. The woman, her daughters and grandchildren are by the sea front. She is sitting on a bench with the daughter who is clearly the more understanding one. The bossy daughter is pacing about, busy on the phone, while she makes sure her children are playing safely and as the older woman speaks, you can see how normal this could be in real life but also glean so much that is unsaid. In the few minutes of that interaction, you feel as if you’ve read a whole chapter of a novel describing all the nuanced emotions in fine detail. And as for humour in French cinema – it can be exaggerated in a very Gallic way and also quite brilliant (Le Placard with Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu, Potiche with Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, Cycling with Moliere, to name but a few).
Dheepan is a film that goes into the heart of the matter of a refugee’s life. I came away full of admiration at the boldness of the depiction and the sheer ease with which the film managed to accomplish it.