Harsh Texture


Dheepan arrived at the right moment as a fully-formed look at the refugee experience in Europe as the migrant waves threatened European Union like nothing else in peace time. It follows at a battle scarred Tamil Tiger who assumes a new identity and family while searching for safety in France. Conflict again threatens his new existence and calls on him to act.

Dheepan’s raves along the international film circuit were due just as much to serendipity as the quality of the film. In 2016 mass immigration poses the most serious threat the European Union’s yet endured. The moral call to help refugees runs headlong into the practical challenges of integrating them en masse.  Completed and released before the summer of 2015, Director/writer Jacques Audiard may have anticipated the importance of the immigration and refugee wave about to crash into Europe, but I doubt he could have predicted its full scale. His Dheepan arrives as perhaps the best, most fully formed look at the current state of refugees.

Dheepan may scan as a revenge thriller. The action elements beg to be thrown into trailers and dominate any synopsis. But like its protagonist, Dheepan resorts to violence reluctantly. Not until the last third of the film do the various threads of the film lead to the promised conflict. Dheepan takes much more effort in tracing the life of an immigrant to Europe.

A Tamil Tiger soldier deserts his unit and buys the passport of a deceased man, Dheepan, and assumes his identity. That man had a wife and daughter, so fellow refugees are drafted into the roles. The handlers in Sri Lanka are in on the con but so too are their counterparts in Dheepan’s destination, France. “What should I tell them?” he asks his French social worker when trying to attain refugee status and state support. Then Dheepan dutifully repeats back how he was a victim of the government repression, violence, that he and his family escaped with their lives.

In the margins of these sequences we get a sense of the full scope of the integration process in Europe. The temporary lodging filled with exasperated and hopeful recent refugees. The organizations dedicated to their resettlement and eventual integration into society. We got a glimpse of this world too in Dirty Pretty Things, but Dheepan’s tone is much more sober and arrives at a resolution far less reliant on symbolism.

Life in France treats the Dheepan and his charges well. The state finds him a job as a caretaker of a slum tenement and their shared apartment goes from empty to fully apportioned with all the typical amenities of Western life. Plush mattresses, laptops, kitchenware. In the good moments they function as a real family unit, protecting each other, even loving each other. But the slumland violence finally envelops them too, leaving Dheepan to fight once again.

It’s clear Dheepan suffers from PTSD and dream sequences roll through the film so casually that the lines between reality and illusion break down nearly completely by the climax and its action set pieces. Jacques Audiard manages the same trick as the Coens in Big Lebowski or Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver: the signifiers between the real world and its inverse once established are reshuffled to disorientating effect. As we draw to the violent conclusion, we cannot trust that we are viewing actual events.  

Published: Sept. 3, 2018, 4:27 p.m.
Updated: Sept. 3, 2018, 4:30 p.m.