Jacques Audiard's Palme d'Or-winning 'Dheepan' is the story of a Sri Lankan man, woman and child who masquerade as a family to escape to France from the aftermath of their country's civil war. Like the French writer-director's last two films, 'A Prophet' and 'Rust and Bone', it offers a muscular compassion and a fondness for confrontational storytelling. But for most of 'Dheepan' this is a more urgent, inquiring film with fewer theatrics and less melodrama; you have to go as far back as 2001's 'Read My Lips' to find an Audiard film as low-key and sensible. Or at least that's the case until the last 20 minutes or so, when the implausibilities start to run rife, making this a more difficult work than you first expect. The very final scene, especially, should keep audiences talking long after they leave the cinema.
Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is a Tamil Tiger who we first meet surrounded by burning bodies in his homeland. By adopting passports belonging to the dead, he pretends that Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) is his wife and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) is his daughter so that they can flee together and seek asylum in France. At first, their family set-up is purely practical. But it takes on a more lasting, meaningful face once the three are installed in Paris on a grim housing estate, where Dheepan takes a job as a caretaker, Illayaal starts at school and Yalini works as a carer to a sick North African man whose nephew is a local crime boss. Gradually, this trio become a family as genuine and as troubled as any other. Dheepan, though, finds the spirit of his past recurring in the present when he becomes embroiled in the drug wars escalating on his doorstep.
Among the straight, punchy, energetic realism, there are impressionistic touches: a blur of neon and grey focuses to show Dheepan selling novelty headgear on Paris streets; while repeated close-ups of elephants remind us from where Dheepan and his family have come and the dreamworld they still inhabit.
Mostly this is a sympathetic, inquisitive portrait of the immigrant experience in Europe. But those troubling late scenes – let's keep the details vague – are more aggressively pointed. Certainly they mean that 'Dheepan' is damning when it comes to France and integration. They also suggest a violent inner world – made joltingly explicit by Audiard – that victims of war carry with them wherever they go. But they also suggest the possibility that peace, solidarity and compassion can win through. It's a heady brew, awkwardly told, but smartly provocative.