‘You’re just not funny, not in any language. Not even in Tamil,’ Dheepan’s wife, Yalini, tells him in a rare moment of levity, breaking into a broad smile. It comes at the midpoint of director, Jacques Audiard’s, latest film offering, the appropriately titled Dheepan. It’s a signature dish of social drama, stylised violence and transcendence, happy to revisit themes first announced in Audiard’s 2009 tour-de-force, ‘A Prophet’. And as you’d expect in a film about Tamil refugees fleeing a terrible civil war, it explores how the survival instinct becomes the glue holding precarious lives together. So the eponymous hero poses as a husband and father to a woman and child he has never previously met and, as a family they are able to escape Sri Lanka to start a new life in France, on a grim housing estate in the suburbs of Paris. There he finds work as the caretaker of one of the housing blocks, and slowly establishes himself as a valued local figure, whose utility even the ubiquitous local criminals begrudgingly recognise. He does, after all, keep the place clean and carry out running repairs, leaving them free to conduct their nefarious business in something other than total squalor. His ‘wife’, Yalini, gets a job as a cook and cleaner for what turns out to be the enigmatic local kingpin, Brahim, and their ‘daughter’, Illayaal, is enrolled at the local school. So the Natarajans appear to be a family much like any other on this estate, getting by, trying to move on, doing their best to steer clear of drama. Though what stands out visually is how Dheepan is most often shown at work, mending, cleaning, maintaining, and the contrast with the young gang members, frequently just hanging around doing very little, or shown committing random acts of vandalism – a predictable roll call of smashed lights, graffiti, litter and weaponised bravado.
Hard working immigrants hiding in plain sight. It’s just the latest of many masks the protagonists have become adept at wearing.
‘Where we’re from, when we fall, we smile. When we’re in pain, we smile,’ Yalini tells Brahim, when he asks her why she always has the same expression. They laugh about the head wobbling routine (Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?) but the place she’s from, Sri Lanka, barely seems to register with the gangster. It’s a telling detail, and not entirely consequence free. Indeed, that place she’s ‘from’ rears up again when she asks Dheepan whether the gangs on the estate are like the ones back home. Dheepan agrees, yes, they’re thugs, but not as dangerous as the ones back home. The warning signs are there. But no one seems to pick up on them, even when he uses a makeshift wheelbarrow to paint a ‘no fire zone’ between two of the warring blocks on the estate. Whilst incurring the wrath of Brahim, the caretaker remains a figure of fun for the footsoldiers, mocking his efforts to draw white lines by asking whether he intends to ‘snort the line’ or whether he has ‘cut it with curry’. He barely registers in their consciousness, other than as a skivvy to clean up after them, and therein lies a fatal error of judgement. If he’s not exactly funny in any language, then they’re not all that smart in the local argot. At a makeshift roadblock manned by local hoodlums, Yalini is subjected to a body search and Dheepan himself narrowly avoids injury when a breeze block is thrown at him from the roof. Yet the gangs ignore the rigidly defined logic of their own ‘turf’ wars and imagine these boundary breaches will go unpunished. Recalling something of The Wire and Slim Charles’ apocryphal warning, ‘If it’s a lie, then we fight on the lie’, Audiard’s film showcases the damaging certainty that sometimes a lie is all that’s worth fighting for. In this case the lie that brought them together, and to France. The lie that they are a family, husband and wife and daughter, the presumed sanctity of which nonetheless remains bound up with certain codes of conduct. With the expectation that certain conventions, boundaries if you like, will not be breached. And of course there are consequences when they are, the inventory of low level thuggery reactivating something atavistic in the apparently mild mannered janitor.
If the larger part of this film works well as an intimate portrait of lives observed in miniature, under the radar of the famous city just a train ride away, then the final act owes more to the classic trope of the revenge western, in all its guises, from The Searchers to Point Blank to Taxi Driver. The banlieue, Le Pre, which Dheepan touchingly explains to Yalini means ‘fields’, seems utterly remote, physically or just as an idea, from the rest of Paris. Indeed its sound (gunshots, fireworks) and self contained fury (a low level turf war) presage a hermetic blindspot which turns out to have lethal consequences. And that’s the point Audiard seems to be making, that it’s sealed off, this world, from that other Paris, from its grand monuments, its paeans to art, culture, civilisation, from the city of the global, and romantic, imaginary. Lest we forget, too, from the totemic city, which has featured so prominently in this past year as a kind of heritage site, ground zero for revanchists of every stripe. And where the classic La Haine (1995) located this schism (between centre and periphery) in a sociology of despair, Dheepan largely dispenses with the structural alibi.
When pressed on this, Audiard himself has said, ‘I wanted to give migrants a name, a shape, a violence of their own.’ This has ruffled some liberal feathers, and that’s surely a good thing. Life off the grid is always more complicated than the theories supplied by academic cheerleaders. In any case, since when has any decent art ever subscribed to the dreary literalism of policy vendors? Exactly. So when Dheepan is stirred into action, the local gangs seem blindsided. Up to that point his presence in their world has been largely passive and that’s the role he’s allotted in their very limited imaginary. During a quiet moment, just before heading off for a spot of the heavy stuff, one of the enforcers confides in Dheepan that even the thuggery round here is outsourced; that he himself is not from Le Pre, and that the drug kingpins prefer to use ‘outside’ enforcers on the estate as they have no ties to the place, and so won’t let sentiment interfere with the brutal task at hand. The caretaker listens without saying a word, storing the detail for future reference. In the end, as with Lee Marvin’s Walker (Point Blank) or Terence Stamp’s Wilson (The Limey) or countless other lone wolves in the history of cinema, what unfolds is precisely the result of that misjudgement. That the caretaker is simply that, a mute witness to the playground antics of the hoods. And of course what that façade relies upon is the unerring ability of these hoodrats to mistake surface for substance, and to miss out history altogether. Its return is underscored in the figure of the elephant, whose image recurs in a swaying leitmotif, perhaps suggestive of other traditions ‘which never forget’. In Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, the remover of obstacles, invoked by Yalini during a visit to the local Tamil mandir. And his tropical incarnation, witness to untold horrors on the island. Finally, in the figure of Dheepan himself, a man raised through war and who has already lost everything – his home, his real wife and children – to that war. Next to that, the local turf wars being played out on the estate barely raise a pulse, though the violence they beget draws ever closer. Dheepan drinks to forget, the lies as much as the violence, but in the end, as Sartre points out elsewhere, ‘what is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.’
And let’s be clear, when something primal finds itself up against something stylised, who doesn’t inwardly rejoice when cutlass licks bone?
One last thing. About the eponymous hero, Dheepan Natarajan, and the possible significance of that name. Nataraja refers to the Hindu God Shiva in a particular incarnation as a cosmic dancer. Shiva’s role as creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe, is said to convey a conception of the never ending cycle of time. The purpose of his dance is also to release mankind from the illusion of the idea of the ‘self’ and of the physical world. Which might be one way at least of looking at or making sense of that final, otherwise jarring scene. Is it real or has transcendence already occurred?
But yeah, cutlass on bone.