Strangers become family in the strangely warm yet violent Dheepan

A- Refugee drama and crime thriller

Written by Noe Debre, Thomas Bidegain, and Jacques Audiard

Directed by Jacques Audiard

A family escapes from war-torn Sri Lanka to make a better, safer life in France. Except it’s not safe, and they’re not really a family.

The smugglers who brought this man, woman, and child out of Sri Lanka and into France gave these them new identities–a husband, wife, and daughter. So, in addition to learning a new language, adjusting to new customs, and surviving financially at the very lowest rung of the economic ladder, they have to fake or create real relationships.

And judging from Dheepan, surviving is a literal challenge at that lowest rung of France’s economic ladder. The neighborhood they live in, which looks to me like what we Americans call projects, is riddled with horrific violent crime–much of it organized. No one is safe here.

Dheepan feels like two excellent films that don’t quite fit together. The first and best film is a social drama about refugees adjusting to Western civilization. The second film, or perhaps I should say movie, proceeds as a very tense, effective, but not very believable thriller.

Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), the man who must learn to be a husband and a father while adjusting to a strange world, was a soldier in the civil wars and now just wants to live in peace. He comes off as a decent, responsible human being. But his history will likely be a problem.

His “wife,” Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), resents the man and girl she’s been thrown in with. She’s not a mother and doesn’t know how to be one. She feels no love or responsibility for her young charge–a fact that seriously bothers Dheepan. But slowly, she learns motherhood and warms to both Dheepan and Illayaal. A deeply religious Hindu, she brings them to her temple. The two adults even become the lovers they have been pretending to be.

Their orphaned “daughter” Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) just wants to fit in. Not surprisingly for her age, she learns French faster than the adults she has to pretend are her parents.

Audiard shows us their transition into French culture subtly. Their clothes change. Their home looks more western. They have less language troubles. Yalini even starts wearing a scarf on her head when out in public; most French women of her complexion are Muslim.

But everything isn’t happy. There’s racism and poverty. And far worse, there are those gangsters. Some of them are just reckless, stupid, violent thugs. The others, the smart ones, seem nice at first glance. Yalini even works for one as a cook and housekeeper. But it soon becomes obvious that befriending a gang leader doesn’t buy you much safety.

Dheepan becomes quite violent in the third act. Expect a lot of gun fire and blood. The big climatic action sequence feels like a very stylish and well-done version of a 1970s Charles Bronson movie. But as much as I enjoyed that climax on its own terms, it didn’t seem right for what had been a realistic drama up until that point. That’s why I can only give this film an A-

Dheepan is a visually beautiful, haunting, loving story that humanizes the important issue of third-world refugees running to the west. I loved it. But I would have loved it even more if director/co-writer Jacques Audiard had skipped the big action finish.