From a distance, Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning film looks like social realism. For one thing, it’s a film about immigration – in this case, from Sri Lanka to France. For another thing, the cast is centred on three non-professional actors – Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby – who play Dheepan, Yalini and Ilaayaal, a trio of strangers who meet at a refugee camp in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War and pose as a family in order to gain political asylum. On top of that, Jesuthasan actually was a member of the Tamil Tigers in the 1980s, although he has since denounced both the the militant group and the Sri Lankan state, especially in the aftermath of his immigration to France, which he states coincides with about half of the events of the film. Finally, great portions of the film are spoken in Tamil, rather than French, which might be expected to relegate Audiard to the detached, documentary distance typical of a certain brand of European social realism.
At the same time, however, social realism presupposes the presence of a single, stable, normative notion of realism, something that is partly thrown off here by the extensive involvement Jesuthasan might be presumed to have with the project. Given how much of the film resembles his own life, as well as the amount of dialogue that is spoken in Tamil, there’s a sense that Jesuthasan is the author or auteur as much as Audiard, and that part of Audiard’s own auteurism involves opening himself up to this possibility. Although Kalieaswari and Vinasithamby are both crucial presences as well, the film – as the title might suggest – is overwhelmingly focuses on Dheepan, and combined with Jesuthasan’s own extensive career as an artist and his work on Tamil film scripts, there is a strong sense that he directing and dictating the action as much as Audiard himself.
Where Audiard’s influence is very clear is in the broad ambit of the story, which sees Dheepan, Yalini and Ilaayaal arrive in France only to be immediately sequestered in an apartment complex on what appears to be the fringes of Paris. The action never leaves this complex, which comes to function more or less as a synecdoche for France as a whole, and which is run by a criminal cartel that gradually recruit Dheepan and Ilaayaal into the role of menial, subsistence laborers. Although this cartel might initially be expected to ground the apartment in some kind of stable French identity – if only a criminal identity, or a fragment of the underworld – it gradually becomes clear that none of the key members are themselves French; or, if they are, they are decisively non-local. In fact, as one of the gang leaders explains to Yalini as she is cleaning his house, it’s a job that can only performed without any local ties or affiliations, since that absence of a personal context is what allows the crime cartel to behave brutally when needed.
As might be expected, the crime narrative gradually escalates, culminating with Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal finding themselves caught in the crossfire of an epic, apartment complex-wide gang war. At the same time, they experience it all vicariously – as Yalini puts it, “it’s like going to the movies,” and the key crime scenes are often framed from the perspective of the Tamil family’s downstairs window, as well as shot in lurid Technicolor hues that emphasise the strangeness and surrealism of this quasi-cinematic spectacle. At one level, that’s clearly because the family still haven’t really mastered French by the end of the narrative, with the result that this is very much a film driven by facial expressions, and by an extraordinary facial earnestness, with each of the three Tamil characters managing to exude about every shade of fear imaginable, even as it is always subtended by a tentative longing for love and belonging. Given that Audiard has a bit of a reputation for speechy, dogmatic crime dramas, it probably works in his favour to filter it all from a second remove, and to faceify it as thoroughly as he does here.
However, these quasi-cinematic crime scenes also fit into a wider disruption of social realist expectations over the course of the film, since it feels as if Jesuthasan’s presence, and the presence of his actual immigration experience, acts as a reminder that social realist depictions of immigration narratives usually depend on a notion of realism promulgated by the recipient country. More specifically, immigration narratives often proceed by depicting immigrants learning to adjust to the reality-principle of their home country, in a gradual process of acclimatisation, a series of cuts and fades, that ends up affirming immigration itself as a discrete and quantifiable process. In that sense, Dheepan starts off quite conventionally, with Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal’s sense of reality being thrown off by their arrival in France, but the difference here is that they never manage to grasp any fixed reality-principle in its place, partly because their experience of France is confined to this one apartment complex, which simply reiterates and recapitulates the process of immigration in a more concentrated way.
While there are certainly social realist moments here, then, Audiard’s social realist tableaux are always devolving into something more dreamlike, usually accompanied by Nicolas Jaar’s haunting electronic score. Time and again, it feels as if we are sliding towards the hallucinatory fringe of the film – or as if the film is unfolding at its own hallucinatory fringes – as Dheepan continually tries and fails to erect some kind of reality principle that will form a decisive break between Sri Lanka and outer Paris. While that’s clear in the continual movement towards lurid genre cinema, it’s also expressed in a series of incomplete and inchoate flashbacks to Sri Lanka itself, although even the term “flashbacks” seems pitifully inadequate to what is going on here. Although these sequences are nominally about Dheepan “recalling” key Sri Lankan moments – especially an extended encounter with an elephant – they seem more about disrupting the editing syntax of the film to produce strange spaces between fades, pans and cuts in which nothing is fully effected but nothing is left behind either.
As a result, Dheepan never feels settled, but instead exudes a processual flux that prevents the Tamil family ever fully inhabiting any single space, producing a pervasive dissonance, a sense of perpetual departure without arrival, that also removes any sense that coming to France involves seeking a better life; instead, Dheepan and his “family” are simply escaping somewhere worse. It’s not hard to see, then, why the film was a controversial choice for the Palme d’Or, as this lack of a discrete “adjustment period” subsumes Dheepan, Kalini and Illayaal’s experiences into a wider migrant flux and affective exchange between France and the third world that ruptures precisely the position of auteurist commentary – and especially auteurist commentary on the third world – on which Cannes prides itself. In the end, the message of Dheepan is that it is impossible for anyone to really “arrive” in France anymore, while the only section resembling anything like classical social realism – the final sequence – is presented as a consoling but untenable fantasy. And it’s that final collapse of social realism and fantasy that makes this feel a bit like a critique of Cannes as a whole too, rendering it one of the most interesting – problematic – choices for the Palme d’Or in recent years.