“Dheepan” couldn’t arrive at a more timely moment: As mass migrations capture daily headlines in ways too anguishing to comprehend, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard brings the subject into sharp, intimately relatable relief. The story of a Sri Lankan refugee trying to build a new life in Europe, “Dheepan” is a film of deep compassion and humanism, even as a formulaic fascination with violence and revenge threatens to upend the empathy Audiard works so hard to create.
Portrayed by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Dheepan is a Tamil fighter facing impending defeat when he seeks to escape Sri Lanka for France. At a resettlement outpost, he recruits Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) to play his wife for the purposes of making a stronger case for political asylum. She, in turn, plucks a young girl named Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) to play their child. In a superb sequence of visual storytelling, Audiard transports the improvised family to Paris, where Dheepan initially sells trinkets on the streets, until he and his new family relocate to one of several suburban apartment blocks — known as banlieues — that have become self-contained communities for generations of French immigrants.
With warmth and touches of welcome humor, Audiard gracefully captures the strangeness, forced intimacy and growing affection of the arrangement between Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal, as they navigate alien cultures both within and outside the walls of their new home. While Illayaal struggles to fit in at school, Yalini constantly threatens to leave to join family in London. Meanwhile, Dheepan — employed as a caretaker of the apartment complex — grows increasingly wary of the gang violence that threatens to engulf the neighborhood and his own fragile future, his foreboding finally leading him to reclaim his identity as a ruthless soldier.
Fans of Audiard’s masterful crime drama “A Prophet,” as well as the subsequent “Rust and Bone,” will recognize his superb skills at work in a film that conveys enormous, heartbreaking emotion without resorting to sentimentalism or cheap manipulations. Working instinctively with his cast of unknowns (Antonythasan is a novelist, political activist and former Tamil soldier), the filmmaker displays the same competing impulses that animate so much of his work: On one hand, Audiard evinces the sensitive, watchful soul of a philosopher and artist, on the other he indulges the less elegant, more pulpy sensibilities of a seasoned genre director.
The marriage of the two worked better in “A Prophet.” Here, they coexist more uneasily, as “Dheepan” takes on the graphic trappings of a conventional bloodthirsty revenge flick. But there’s no doubt that Audiard has invested a story of grief, dispossession and desire with immediate, almost tactile, urgency. Like the best fiction, it takes the most incomprehensible stories of our time and makes them hauntingly, inescapably clear.
R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains violence, obscenity, brief sexuality and nudity. In Tamil, French and English with subtitles. 115 minutes.