Dheepan movie full length review - Tamil refugees in France lapse into new violence
Dheapan is the film's titular hero, the battleground and a fabrication. A Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger takes up a strange woman and a nine-year-old orphan girl in order to escape the civil war into France.
They assume the identity and passports of the dead Dheapan, his wife Yalini and his daughter. When we forget the lead characters' real names they become the ghosts, the afterlives, of their namesakes.
The film opens on the woman, not Dheapan, as she scurries through a refugee camp looking for an orphan to "adopt" as her ticket out. She's assigned her "husband."
Director Jacques Audriard follows the three principals' struggles to slip into the refugee's life in France. The new Dheapan works as a tenement block janitor and lands a caregiver job in a neighbouring block for Yalini. Her M Habib personifies PTS, for whatever cause. The three refugees struggle to learn rudimentary French and to find their way in a confusing culture. An emotional connection develops between the man and the woman but Yalini resists connecting to the little girl, considering her a means to escape not a responsibility.
The refugee's difficulties in assimilation are dwarfed by the recidivist tensions they bring from their past. The janitor tries to resist his old rebel leader's demands he raise money to buy Lebanese arms for his shattered forces back home. The scene revives the war within Dheapan. Dheapan revives his old militance and violence when a drug gang war erupts between the two tenement blocks. As the incipient family seems about to be shattered by this war, Dheapan relents and returns Yalini's passport, which he'd commandeered to keep her from fleeing to London.
The film is an extremely moving experience. All three leads command our empathy. When Yalini pleads on her cellphone for her passport she's in a long shot, framed in a small window with the "daughter" isolated in another box far right, two pockets of light in the black block.
The film provides a comprehensive vision of contemporary refugees and their accommodation. There's a dignity in their urgent needs, their hunger for freedom and community, and a respect for their resourcefulness, as all three prove very capable and fine potential citizens. But there is also that baggage: the fury and violence they fled revives in their new setting.
The film ends with an optimistic epilogue. London in the spring, the three are enjoying a family and neighbourhood afternoon party. Dheapan seems to be driving a cab and he has an infant child. In the last shot Yalini runs her ring-less left hand through his hair affectionately. The whole scene seems fake. Of course if we think it doesn't ring true we might well assume this very accomplished director wants us to think it doesn't ring true. Why would we think he screwed up now?
The scene has a brightness and cheer unprecedented in this film, musically as well as visually. That is, it seems imported from another. Now, it takes a good while for an immigrant to get to drive a London cab. And we have seen nothing to bridge the characters' last scene in France and this one in London. If indeed the couple did marry there would be a ring on the woman's finger.
Conclusion: that ending is not an event but a fantasy. It's the possibility that the shivered if not broken couple in France hold out as a possible dream they might yet realize. That bit of film fibbing tells perhaps another profound truth about the eternal refugee. Whatever the disappointments, however inescapable the violence and ineluctable their failures, they can always dream of yet another escape that might just ? against all their experience ? this time work.