R for a lot of stuff. There's some really brutal violence in this movie. Couple that with the fact that it is gangland and wartime violence, it makes it very uncomfortable to watch. There is also nudity in a sexual context and language that is pretty intense. It's an R rated movie for a reason. R.
DIRECTOR: Jacques Audiard
I made a list on Facebook at the end of the year, ranking my favorite films from 2020. At the top, with a bullet, was His House, a horror movie that focused on the horrors of the refugee in England. I praised the film for being this powerhouse of cinema, both original and horrifying. Well, apparently, it isn't absolutely original in the sense that Dheepan, a movie that I don't actually remember throwing on my Netflix DVD queue, is very similar, only without the horror movie aesthetic. I don't know if it somehow delegitimizes my love for His House, but I do know that it stands on the shoulders of giants. Dheepan wrecked me as much as His House did, but somehow feels like it is treading new ground.
There's no way to write this without stressing that I'm going to be white-knighting a bit. I have some causes that really move my heart, and probably the number one cause is the treatment of immigrants and refugees. With a story of Dheepan, it covers some of the territory set forth by His House. Both films feature characters who aren't entirely innocent. This is smart. I know. I shouldn't be the one who can comment on the smartness of things. Regardless, here I am, doing exactly that. When both sets of protagonists are problematic, scamming the system to escape their home countries, it provides an emotional context to the dangers of home. Dheepan was a violent monster who was raised to kill for local warlords. Yet, this moment provides him a story of redemption. It's odd how quickly I bond with Dheepan and Yalani, despite the fact that both of them are deeply flawed individuals. They may not have had it the worst that would allow a country to embrace them in a safety state, but they still risk being caught and captured for a world of safety.
Audiard does something fascinating with his portrayal of Dheepan. We know that they are lying from very early in the film. We know that they have adopted these identities to escape their homes. But we don't really know much about Dheepan's background of violence. Yeah, there's a lot of problematic behavior, especially when it comes to gender expectations. But Dheepan almost seems to be a good person until we find out the details of his violent background in the third act of the movie.
I'll be honest. As much as the end of the movie makes a lot of sense and that I enjoyed the film as a whole, the end feels a bit Rambo for me. It definitely takes a tonal shift. But it detracts from the emotional resonance that the movie portrays. There's also something, and this is because I am trying to watch the movie as critically as I can, that might reinforce a few stereotypes about the dangers of refugees. But I just wanted to get that out of the way before I talk about what I liked about the film.
Dheepan's shedding of his violence shows that humanity is a tabula rasa. Yeah, he's not perfect throughout. He's a bit too forceful with Yalani and I really don't want to downplay that tendency or excuse that behavior. But he becomes kind of a good man throughout the piece. He is in this squalor. He cleans up for drug lords who insult him and hurt him, but he finds value of living in France. It's so interesting the setting of this film because both His House and Dheepan remind us of the problems of how we treat refugees. Dheepan, for the shame he puts on himself, seems to really thrive in this new location. He finds joy in the small things around him. It's interesting watching him repair an elevator that will go totally unappreciated, yet finding value in that work. He hates the Dheepan of Sri Lanka. He doesn't try to be the Dheepan of France, but just someone who is new and isn't going to be defined by a home country.
But I find it interesting that the film is actually titled Dheepan. Like, he's a major character and I don't deny that he's got a pretty rad character arc, but Yalani feels like a more fleshed out character. Yeah, she's quickly a victim within the story. But in terms of internal conflict, Yalani probably has a lot more to unpack. She's faking being a mother, which seems to have the potential to be a movie in itself. But when she oddly befriends Brahim, that's a deep story. She is this character who is being pulled by two very strong forces. She knew the trauma of Sri Lanka. She knew the steps that she took to get to France. She abhors the evil of her past, yet she instantly gleans onto the first dominant corrupt personality. Her interactions with Brahim are extremely telling. Her embrace of the ignorant foreigner persona contrasted to her actual desire to be footloose and fancy free says a lot about how we view the refugee. The refugee, according to Yalani, is much more fragile and deep than the assumption we have about these people. Instead, everything we see is a learned behavior, built around the fear about being sent home. There's the scene, and I'm sound a bit "Chris Farley Show" right now, where Yalani is sitting with Brahim and he comments on her head tilt. It's a clear memorable scene because there's a callback to this scene. But her honesty juxtaposed to her tone of voice is really very telling. There's this assumption in the West that immigrants are simple people who don't understand. Instead, we get this very heavy story about her constant sadness that is regularly buried because she really doesn't want to go back.
I have stuff that I want to say about Illayaal, but it does kind of fit within the story. She's this absolute powerhouse of a character and it almost makes her the least accessible character. There's this very cool irony that happens with Illayaal. Her character has been through the wringer. She's an orphan who has an entire pretense of being these people's daughter. But instead, she has the emotional maturity that Yalani absolutely lacks. Her relationship with Yalani is really interesting because there are moments throughout the story where Yalani seems to be bonding with Illayaal in a way that seems maternal. But it all kind of comes down when we realize that Yalani is the most unprepared for this lifestyle. She never wanted to be a mother. She's pretending to be significantly older than she actually is and we see that she grasps desperately to that stage of arrested development. Instead, Illayaal becomes the parent of the family. She teaches Dheepan on how to speak English and actually parents Yalani into becoming a parent of her own. Her loneliness is the only thing that really reveals her age and that is beyond understandable.
I adored this movie. I always have a hard time writing about movies that absolutely slay me. It's probably a fault that I need to overcome, considering that I've been writing this blog for four years. But Dheepan, for whatever moment of impulse I threw it on my queue, is one of the better movies I've seen in the past decade. It's not perfect. I don't love that Dheepan goes Rambo on the movie. But it also is the ending that makes the most amount of sense.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.