Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is a survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil War. As a Tamil Tiger soldier, he is forced to move to a refugee camp where he acquires the passport of a deceased man, Dheepan, and takes on his name. Since the deceased Dheepan had a wife and a daughter whose passports were also available, he brings with him a woman, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and an orphan girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) in order to claim political asylum in France.
Dheepan is part autobiographical: Jesuthasan was a child soldier in the Sri Lankan Civil War. When he was unable to find fake British or Canadian passports, Jesuthasan, his brother and his sister acquired fake French passports in order to seek asylum in France. Jacques Audiard sought to, in Dheepan, create a story similar to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs to capture the immigrant experience of those, in this circumstance refugees, living in France.
Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayaal become situated in a housing project called Le Pré. Dheepan becomes a groundskeeper for the project, Yalini becomes an assistant to an elderly man, and Illayaal starts attending school. For a time, the three feel as if they are family and become acclimated to living in France, each attaining a certain sense of belonging. Audiard develops this idea by chronicling the family’s learning of French and embracing their difference in nationality and culture, the family choosing to attend Muslim religious services rather than Christian. For the majority of the film, the housing project’s inhabitants are kind and respectful to the cultural differences of the refugees, but as drug-related violence between gangs situated across apartments within the project escalates, Dheepan is viewed as a threat and becomes a decidedly unwanted inhabitant.
Fearing violence, Yalini wishes to abandon Dheepan and Illayaal to leave for England where she has a cousin. With the couple’s relationship elevated to being sexual and raising Illayaal as if she were their own daughter, Dheepan is hurt by her willingness to leave him and Illayaal despite the threat of violence. Having lost his family in the Civil War, his put-together-by-circumstance family is dear to him: he doesn’t view Yalini and Illayaal as being with him as a matter of convenience in order to pose as a family, but rather as actually being his family in France after fleeing Sri Lanka. Yalini accuses him of participating in the drug wars by raising men in an apartment to being his soldiers in the drug conflict. She fears it is unsafe to stay near Dheepan, hurt by his exposure to warfare during his childhood.
Acting in Dheepan is subtle and convincing, especially considering both Srinivasan and Vinasithamby are first-time actors. Nonetheless, it seems ludicrous to compare drug skirmishes in France- petty, suburban, affluent crime- to civil war in Sri Lanka where political conflicts and human rights violations abounded over 25 years of warfare. At times, Dheepan seems overly optimistic and its optimism rings hollow, especially during the film’s final scene. The film also struggles in pacing. While Dheepan isn’t an epic of a story like Audiard’s The Prophet as it conceivably could’ve been, Dheepan is still nestled within the auteur’s convention of creating characters that bear burdens until finally being rewarded a more fortunate life.