“Dheepan” came out of nowhere to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year. (Well, perhaps not “nowhere”; it was in competition, after all!) The top prize at the most prestigious international film festival seemed an oddly inflated accolade for a film that even its defenders found to be significantly flawed. That central flaw, which is really inescapable in discussing “Dheepan”’s overall impact, is its ending. What begins as a quietly gripping social-realist immigrant drama inexplicably transforms, in its final scenes, into a Bruce Willis action movie.
That first film, the good one, is the tale of three Sri Lankan Tamils who pretend to be husband, wife, and daughter in order to gain refugee status. They travel to France where, after a period of adjustment, they find a measure of stability in a housing project in the outskirts of Paris. The “patriarch,” who takes the name Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), finds a job as the project’s groundskeeper; his “wife” Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) lands a well-paying job as caretaker for an elderly tenant; and their “daughter” (Claudine Vinasithamby) excels at school, quickly learning French, which she teaches Dheepan in the evenings.
Jesuthasan, whose real life inspired aspects of the story, gives a beautifully rounded and humane performance. He wears the expression of a man who would like nothing more than to forget all his secrets. Kalieaswari is equally convincing as a woman who is just starting to allow herself to care for her ersatz family. Director Jacques Audiard pitches these scenes of three strangers gradually assimilating and forming familial bonds in a straightforward register that suggests a slightly meandering yet utterly compelling riff on the Dardenne Brothers. Audiard’s occasional stabs at overt stylization—a slo-mo shot of street hawkers wearing blinking mouse ears trudging through the fog, the practically inevitable fireworks shot, Nicolas Jaar’s electro-ambient score—feel arbitrary, as if Audiard feels a need to remind the viewer that he’s not just telling a story; he’s directing.
These stylistic intrusions would be merely harmless if they weren’t all leading up to a scene of such formal and tonal excess that it destabilizes the entire film. The project is the center of an internecine gang war, which Dheepan and his family find themselves in the middle of. The violence gradually encloses on their lives, ultimately forcing Dheepan to play action hero in a bizarrely misjudged sequence that feels like it was guest-directed by Gareth Evans. Audiard’s decision to stage this as a virtuoso action sequence turns Dheepan (the character) into a joke. After it’s all over one half-expects him to turn to the camera and smirk, “Traffic was a bitch.” And the subsequent scene (the final one in the film) is no better—a dialogue-free, bathed-in-white-light epilogue which gives the trio (now undeniably a family) a happy ending in the UK. It’s a closing straight out of the 90s-action-movie playbook (see: Face/Off or Con Air for just two examples).
So, in case you were beginning to think France might actually be a marginally more livable environment than war-torn Sri Lanka, Audiard is here to remind you that violence is inescapable… and also necessary…except in the UK, which is basically the promised land? Honestly, “Dheepan”’s ending so muddies the film’s thematic waters and so cheapens its story and characters that I am genuinely confused as to what Audiard is trying to get at with the film. Certainly the gang violence in France is meant to recall the war in Sri Lanka (in case you somehow missed this, Yalini even asks Dheepan at one point, “Doesn’t it remind you of anything?”), but to what end? Audiard provides little context for understanding either conflict. The film’s conclusion ultimately lays a bunch of action-movie cliches on top of a story that requires something deeper, more nuanced, and quite possibly less dramatic. Not all stories, even those which start in violence, must end in violence.