Warning: Review contains spoilers
My favorite of the films nominated for the 2015 Oscars (aside from Room, which didn’t seem to have a chance) was The Revenant, even if that was a somewhat divisive choice. Given that, you’d think I would have been heavily rooting for that movie to walk away with the coveted Best Picture award, but that actually wasn’t the case. I could tell at a certain point that the critical community was drawing lines in the sand with that movie and the more successful it became the more its detractors claimed to hate it. I could tell that winning that award would actually be something of a disservice to the movie as it would have forever put the film in the Crash camp of being “that movie that shouldn’t have won that Oscar” in the minds of the people that the movie rubbed the wrong way. Looking back I suspect that losing the Oscar was also in the best interest of other recent BP runner ups like Avatar and Lincoln. Of course the Oscar isn’t the only award that can backfire when the wrong movie wins it, in the artier sphere of movie fandom a similar fate can befall winners of the Cannes Palm d’Or who don’t live up to that award’s lofty standards. Case in point the Jacques Audiard movie Dheepan, which shocked the Croisette when it was given the festival’s highest honor by a jury headed by none other than the Coen brothers. The jury press conference that followed seemed to hint that the film was more of a consensus compromise than a fervent manifestation of the jury’s tastes, but it was a baffling choice nonetheless given that it was up against films like Son of Saul, Carol, and The Assassin. Still, it is a Jacques Audiard movie and that is a filmmaker worth paying attention to whether his films are deserving of major festival awards or not, so I was still rather curious.
The film concerns three Tamil Siri Lankans, a man, a woman, and a tween girl, who escape the unrest in that country by taking the identities of a family of three who passed away but still had the necessary visas to travel to France. The man, whose real name is Sivadhasan (and is played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan) but his assumed name is Dheepan and the woman who’s masquerading as his wife goes by the name Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and the supposed daughter is Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). Sivadhasan seems to have had the roughest time back in Siri Lanka as he was a member of the Tamil Tigers and clearly saw some of the worst of the conflict there. In France the family takes residence at what appears to be a housing project where Sivadhasan is given a job as a superintendent but whatever hopes the family had of some kind of idyllic new life are complicated by the crime that goes on at this building. There’s a clear gang presence in the building and given that Sivadhasan is a soldier at heart he finds it difficult to keep his head down and simply deal with it.
Jacques Audiard is an interesting filmmaker because he clearly has a strong interest in social realism but he approaches this from more of a genre direction than his more humanist peers like Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers. This makes him one of the more easily accessible French auteurs you’re likely to encounter and when he’s at his best, as he was with the 2010 prison/gangster film A Prophet, this blend can lead to sublime results. However, his odd mix of the highbrow and the lowbrow can also be a bit jarring at times and when he stumbles it can sometimes make it look like he’s just making prettified mediocrities. This is what ultimately hurt his last film, Rust and Bone, which was strongly filmed and had some brilliant moments and performances in it, but at the end of the day its script just felt melodramatic and silly. In fact I might go so far as to suspect that scriptwriting may be the guy’s Achilles heel, which is kind of odd given that they guy worked for the better part of two decades as a screenwriter before his directorial debut.
This latest project certainly follows that formula in that it’s about a serious social issue, the refugee experience in modern Europe, but it tackles it in a way that at times borders on the sensationalistic, especially in its controversial ending (which I’ll be spoiling shortly). In fact it’s that ending, which is jarringly violent, that has been the main sticking point for most critics and was likely the biggest reason that its Cannes victory was so shocking. In this climax Sivadhasan/Dheepan seems to tap into his Tamil Tiger past to violently take down the gangsters that have taken over his building. So the question is, is this a take on Death Wish (good man stands up to evil criminals through violent vigilantism) or a take on Taxi Driver (psycho uses the veneer of vigilantism to unleash his demons). I certainly hope it’s the later and that the film’s coda could be interpreted as a delusion much as the final scene in Taxi Driver could be, but there’s a lot of benefit of a doubt required to give it that and even if that is what’s going on that still leaves the film’s ending as a faint echo of a forty year old Scorsese movie.
While that ending is Dheepan’s biggest problem I wouldn’t say that this was some kind of masterpiece in the making before it let itself down, but the first 75% of the film is solid. The three principal actors here all do good work which is doubly impressive given that they appear to be non-actors. The film is also really well shot and its depiction of the French immigrant experience is pretty well rendered. The film acknowledged many of the challenges these immigrants may have faced but it doesn’t feel like a litany of suffering and is able to show the good with the bad and also adds that interesting dimension of being about people who are only pretending to be a family and sort of not knowing how to feel about that. There is definitely the makings of a good but not great movie there but the fact that it’s all leading in this weird tangential direction kind of does sour the whole thing for me. At the end of the day it comes back to that same problem I have with Jacques Audiard: great direction, questionable writing. And no, I don’t really see why anyone would give this thing the most prestigious award in world cinema.