Former Sri Lankan Civil War fighter Sivadhasan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is forced into the life of a refugee by the Tamil Tigers’ defeat. But Paris turns out not to be the hospitable new home he might have hoped for.
Jacques Audiard’s 2015 Palme D’Or winner crosses the Channel and proves worth the wait. Known for tautly constructed tales that don’t skimp on emotional depth (Rust And Bone, A Prophet), here the writer/director takes a timely look at the plight of the titular Tamil refugee (Antonythasan), fleeing civil war for supposed succour in Paris but instead encountering hostility from local gangs that makes La Haine look like Neighbours. “I can’t stand this,” he mutters to himself, shortly after his arrival in the French capital — a pretty damning sentiment given he’s just left a battle zone.
It may tend toward the lurid at times but Jacques Audiard never loses sight of the small lives in this big story.
Despite the title this is as much the story of fellow escapees Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and nine year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), strangers who become the fake family with whom he sets up home after taking the job of janitor for one of outer Paris’ nondescript concrete tower blocks. Striving to make a life in this land of relative opportunity, even as Yalini plans a move to London, the three swiftly adjust to finding themselves amid more conflict — pointed parallels are drawn between combat-torn Sri Lanka and the gang warfare of the French capital’s banlieues.
If at times this tends to the lurid, Audiard never loses sight of the small lives in this big story — not just the quietly dignified immigrants, but also the estate thugs who, after an initial stance of uneasy truce, wind up becoming their tormentors. A subplot involving Vincent Rottiers’ Brahim — leader of the gang and full of big-fish-small-pond bravado but fascinated by the exotic Yalini — offers another hint that, underneath, there’s a chance we can find common ground. Their tentative unlikely friendship — if you can even call it that — brings another dimension to the drama that will follow.
Amid the violence and spiralling chaos is a simple tale of stoic optimism, played beautifully by Antonythasan and Srinivasan — often enemies but almost always allies. They’re not perfect — Dheepan is not above some old-fashioned male chauvinism when in a corner, Yalini is not afraid to put her survival first — but they’re essentially good people doing the best they can, and that’s surely the point. And if the film’s denouement skirts dangerously close to sentiment, it’s nonetheless a heartening reminder that a little hope can sometimes be wrested from the deepest despair.
Once again Audiard articulates big themes within a mosaic of everyday struggles. A painful yet rewarding tale of social strife and uplifting resilience.