On its face — and for the first 90 minutes of its runtime — Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan appears to be a familiar kind of indie drama. Winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film’s subject matter is both timely and gripping, revolving around the titular Tamil soldier (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) who flees Sri Lanka after losing his wife and two children in that country’s brutal civil war. The sullen and shellshocked Dheepan ends up in France alongside two other refugees: a wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who is not his wife and a daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who is not his daughter. This trio, brought together by unspeakable tragedy, must play-act as a family in order to secure asylum status and avoid being sent back to the bloodshed from whence they came.
With Europe’s refugee crisis dominating headlines and Western governments re-evaluating their commitment to multiculturalism, it’s only right for Cannes to grant its highest prize to a film that sheds an honest, unflinching light on the immigrant experience. Dheepan is very nearly that film. Audiard smartly recognizes that cultural assimilation cannot be captured in a quick and easy montage; it is a awkward, embarrassing, and even physically painful process that involves plenty of linguistic slip-ups and countless nights spent crying in bed.
Rather than indulging in the same kind of sentimentality that proved to be a sticking point in John Crowley’s Brooklyn, Audiard trains his camera on the day-to-day banalities of life in a new country. We see Yalini struggling to sort mail in the suburban tenement where the “family” has settled, and we see Dheepan wandering around that tenement with a bucket of cleaning supplies, anxious to make himself of use but unable to communicate effectively.
As the new caretaker of a building dominated by gang activity, it’s Dheepan’s job to keep things tidy and to look away when he witnesses suspicious activity on his rounds. Though he’s suffering from severe PTSD and keeps his personality buried deep beneath his thick beard, he’s the only member of the newly minted trio who seems to take to his new surroundings with any kind of relish. Diving into his new life helps Dheepan keep his mind off the nightmares of home, but it only serves to frustrate Yalini, who takes to French more slowly and complains that “everyone stares” when she goes outside.
One of France’s most accomplished directors, Audiard allows himself a few artistic flourishes (such as a powerfully incongruous scene in which Dheepan, selling neon knick-knacks in Paris, emerges from the dark looking like an alien with a flashing bowtie on his head) but generally keeps his film grounded in an appropriately gritty kind of realism. The first two-thirds of Dheepan are genuinely captivating, with a tangle of subplots that find Dheepan fully buying into his new family while Yalini attempts to stay as autonomous as possible, always threatening to run away to her cousin’s in England. The duo’s romance never quite achieves full liftoff, but Audiard teases it out for long enough to make it feel like an authentic courtship — the kind that begins more out of proximity and necessity than sexual passion.
It’s a shame, given all of the film’s strengths, that Dheepan takes such a precipitous nosedive in its final act. As if unconvinced that his characters can carry the weight of a story on their own backs, Audiard falls back on a hackneyed plot that involves gang violence, turf disputes, and a bloody shootout that reaches an almost laughable point of absurdity. He’s likely trying to make a point about how you can never fully leave your past behind or about how humans everywhere are capable of the same senseless carnage, but what it amounts to is a near-total betrayal of the audience’s trust.
Such is the real tragedy of Dheepan: What begins as an uncommonly nuanced portrayal of the immigrant experience ends as a glorified, arthouse version of Taken. That might be enough to put a few more butts in those seats, but it comes at the cost of the film’s soul. We’re left asking Audiard the same question Dheepan or Yalini ask themselves on an almost daily basis: Was it worth it?