Why the moving story of Jacques Audiard's Dheepan eventually falls flat

The first two thirds of Audiard's latest film are set up well - so why does it morph into Death Wish 3 by the end?

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Early on in Dheepan, which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, two Sri Lankan refugees are debating their next move. Their case is about to be examined by French immigration officials who have the power to find them a home or send them back to the one they fled. The woman of the couple has got cold feet and is considering hotfooting it to England.

“With the kid?” the man asks, gesturing to the child standing nearby. “Why should I take her?” she replies brusquely. It isn’t the most touching display of familial solidarity. But then this isn’t really a family at all. These refugees are travelling together because their ages and appearances correspond approximately with the passports of three dead Sri Lankans.

We know them by their assumed names: Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), his “wife”, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and the nine-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), an orphan who becomes their “daughter” only after Yalini scours a refugee settlement looking for an unclaimed child who fits the bill. (“Is this one yours?” she asks any woman who happens to be seated near a young girl. Requests for discarded newspapers have been made less casually.) Dheepan, who has lost his wife and children, is a former rebel fighter posing as a victim of war in order to gain asylum. His ruse is believed and he is placed with Yalini and Illayaal on a housing estate in the suburbs of Paris, where he is given the job of caretaker.

It’s going to take more than a broom to keep this place clean. Dheepan’s employer instructs him to work around the drug-dealing gangs on the estate so as not to disrupt their business. Yalini gets a job caring for one of her disabled neighbours and discovers that the dealers are using his apartment as their base. Sitting at the kitchen table with him, she cranks up his tiny transistor radio to try to overwhelm the sound of fighting in the next room.

Despite the high-stakes plot, it is the evolution of relationships within the jerry-rigged family that supplies the film’s dramatic weight. As well as trying to find their place in French society, the Sri Lankans are negotiating their way around one another. The adults disavow parental responsibility but they still fall into bickering over whether or not Illayaal should be allowed to eat with her hands. Yalini resents Dheepan for needling her, but people in close proximity can’t help getting to know each other. One of the loveliest scenes shows her breaking it to him, with a kind of possessive affection, that he isn’t a funny person – not in Tamil, not in French, not in any language. It’s a breakthrough for them. What should have been an insult converts into intimacy.

The changes between Yalini and Illayaal are also a source of wonder. Wearing a towel turbaned on her head, the child instructs the woman in how to be a mother – give a kiss at the school gates, don’t be horrid at home. The basics. Yalini looks contrite. ­Until that point, it genuinely hadn’t occurred to her that a scared, bereaved, lonely girl might not want to be struck or shouted at.

The success of these scenes makes it all the more regrettable that they are shunted aside in favour of superficial action with no nutritional value. The director, Jacques Audiard, and his co-writers, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, are rather too preoccupied by the irony that Dheepan has escaped one armed conflict and walked straight into another. The film is nicely attuned to the ways in which this warrior is infantilised in his new country – he has to wear a flashing, illuminated plastic bow in his hair at one point, and his bedroom is decked out in cartoon kitten wallpaper. But that doesn’t excuse the vehemence with which they show him reclaiming his authority by going to war with the gangs on the estate.

Audiard’s last film, Rust and Bone, was a piece of social realism prone to explosions of hysterical melodrama. After each contrived tragedy or spectacle, it had to regroup and prove its credentials all over again from scratch. The whole thing was exhausting. Dheepan does at least prepare us more thoroughly in its first two thirds for the changes in the final one, as well as backloading its most sensationalist material. All the groundwork in the world, though, can’t alter the fact that a film which began in the style of Ken Loach has turned into Death Wish 3.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war