Movie Review: Jacques Audiard looks into man’s dark heart with Palme d’Or-winning “Dheepan”.
Jacques Audiard is a stylist who is drawn towards life’s tougher scenarios. Whether it’s a hard-living whale trainer who loses her legs in “Rust and Bone” or a wrongfully imprisoned man who is turned into a conscienceless criminal mastermind in his masterpiece “Une Prophete,” Audiard doesn’t ascribe to the Woody Allen/Noah Baumbach school of “white people sitting in cafes talking about their issues,” and the subsequent style of filmmaking birthed from that particular outlook on life. The problems suffered by the characters in Audiard’s films are real people problems, ones we’ve all been through at one point or another. Even if our father isn’t a powerful gangster (“The Beat that my Heart Skipped”) or we aren’t being forced to commit cold-blooded murder, (“Une Prophete” again) we’ve all been faced with near-impossible decisions at one point or another. It’s part of what makes the French auteur’s cinema so cathartic: he’s undoubtedly one of our more sensuous directors (he doesn’t feel the need to rub our nose in misery; he has a tactile and borderline abstract way of dramtizing action) but he also rarely lets his viewer off the hook. These films are meant to bring you close to the burning, suffering heart of their protagonists, and they do.
His new picture, “Dheepan,” which one the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is another hard-hitting morality tale about the cost of pain and violence. The Dheepan of the title is a former Tamil Tiger soldier, played with masterful, menacing understatement by actor/author/political activist Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who leaves behind the horrors and brutality of the civil war in his native land of Sri Lanka to forge a new life in Paris with a woman and a child whom he barely knows, but who he is forced to call family.
Along the way, Dheepan discovers that while he has been able to flee from the atrocities that plague his homeland, that his own capacity for violence is formidable — it’s seemingly embedded in his DNA. A former child soldier whose awful past is written all over his weary face, Dheepan houses a beast inside him: one we see teasing, terrifying glimpses of, and one he works quite hard to keep at bay. Once he and his new family have acclimated to their new surroundings, this quiet, seething man gets a job as a caretaker in an old Parisian project tenement. He cleans up the trash, tends to the odd chore here and there and generally keeps to himself. When bullets start flying through his kitchen window, though, courtesy of a gang of abusive, drug-dealing project thugs that live in the adjacent building, the monster inside Dheepan becomes increasingly hard to contain and that’s where the bloodshed begins.
The movie is first and foremost a low-key stylistic feat: Audiard has never been one to wallow in the muck of miserbalism like his fellow Frenchmen the Dardennes, and he possesses a tremendous sense of style that gives his films a cinematic kick in the pants. Who can forget, after all, the primally terrifying scene in “Rust and Bone” where Marion Cotillard loses her legs to a mighty Orca whale, or the murder scene in “Une Prophete,” one of the most deliberately sloppy and ugly-looking death scenes in the history of cinema? “Dheepan” is filled with striking, sometimes hallucinatory images, like the periodic and impressionistic flashes of a great, lumbering elephant that pepper the narrative (reminders of the merciless jungle environment from which Dheepan has escaped) or an early scene where Godardian flashes of bright red and blue reveal our title character and his family hustling glow-in-the-dark neon bunny ears on the crowded streets of Paris?
The film is also shockingly well-acted: Jesuthasan is mostly unknown here in the states, but he cuts an imposing figure, and has one of the most pained and expressive faces I’ve seen on an actor in some time. The scenes where Dheepan lets his inner brute out — usually while singing along to jubilant Tiger war songs from his childhood, or the occasional outburst when he finds he can no longer contain his resentment towards the hoods who are terrorizing his family — are raw and startling in their emotional power.
Kalieaswari Srinivasan, who is quite beautiful and also, quite an actress, plays Dheepan’s would-be wife Yalini as a conflicted, anguished woman who trades one war zone for another, and who also senses the growing sense of torment and rage in her “husband” that few others can see. She has several tough scenes where her character is beaten down, literally and figuratively, (Audiard has never let his female characters off the hook easily) and she’s in many ways, the heart of the movie. Vincent Rottiers plays Brahim, a tough, preening young criminal who fancies himself the cock of the walk, and who eventually finds himself at odds with the seemingly harmless new caretaker. Simultaneously childish and horrifying, the sneering Rottiers gives a performance that simmers with insinuations of cold, hardened evil. He’s mesmerizing to watch, even if his scenes with Srinivasan are sometimes imbued with a sexual tension that was a bit too uncomfortable for my liking. He has the ferocity of a young Edward Norton in “American History X” mode and I doubt this is the last we’ll be seeing of him.
My only complaint about “Dheepan,” really, is the rushed, somewhat baffling denouement. I am not, it should be said, referring to the inevitable bloodbath that ensues when Dheepan finally decides he’s had enough of these insolent neighborhood terrors, though some critics have taken issue with this coda too — mostly for its superficial resemblance to Charles Bronson revenge thrillers like “Death Wish” and other violent Hollywood fare that sees tortured loners turning against their oppressors with guns blazing. First of all, Audiard is not some Hollywood taskman — he’s a smart director who understands the real, awful effects of violence, as well as its cost, and this alone gives him distinction against his more superficially-minded mainstream counterparts. And also, how did we think this story was going to end? That this man, who is bubbling with latent violence from the start, was simply going to pack up his things and move somewhere else? Have you not seen a Jacques Audiard movie before?
But the movie’s final scenes — which I won’t spoil here — do feel too neat, too convenient, leaving a whole mess of questions unanswered before the credits roll (in spite of his proclivity towards downbeat subject matter, Audiard has always felt compelled to give his films happy endings). Aside from this admittedly minor misstep, though, “Dheepan” is a knockout: a touching and poetic look at the low points of the modern-day immigrant experience as well as a bruising, quietly eruptive piece of personal filmmaking that simmers on low heat for a good, long while before veritably exploding into the kind of fierce, white-knuckle entertainment that the director does so well. Like its protagonist, “Dheepan” is full of pain, and it’s a masterfully executed film that cuts deep. A-