Terence Nance on Why Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan is Essential Viewing

A film with Sri Lankan protagonists set in France is the answer to so much, you should have already seen it before starting to read this...

Potential headlines with which to adorn a poster for Audiard’s latest:

“An Albatross of Cinematic Mastery!”
“A Love Story!”
“Like all those Liam Neeson movies but … well photographed, acted, conceived, etc.!” (I think A.O. Scott said something to this effect.)

I’m praying you have seen this movie; if you haven’t, just stop reading now. Just get off your tush and just … find a theater, my love. Find a cinema, a temple constructed in reverence to the art form of moving pictures married to sound. A temple which is oft desecrated by shitty nachos and very boring movies about square-jawed white guys and their conquests. This movie is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It approaches the space of spectacle and fills every inch with intention, with love, with sensitivity and, literally, with light.

I’m finding it really hard to write about this film – its perfection resists contextualization. Furthermore, I truly feel that you should not be reading this – as I told you above, you should have already left for the theater. There is also the fact that I think my writing style lends itself to crass card-pulling of shitty or racist movies and their purveyors. You know how when you turn on the news most of it is bad? That’s probably because it’s hard to write about good news. Talking about Dheepan seems trite and reductive compared to experiencing it.

Do not read this part if you have not seen the movie. See it naked, unclothed by my descriptions of its juju.

The trailer and press told me this movie was about Dheepan, soberingly rendered by Antonythasan Jesuthasan. The movie is instead a three-hander of sorts about a family who falls in love with each other as a survival tactic. An involuntary tick toward kinship arises out of a need to literally preserve their lives. This rendering of how oppressive situations forge bonds is something that I explicitly relate to – fictive kinship is a very large part of Black American culture. I’ve never seen this dynamic rendered in cinema and with such precision.

Initially, the film centralizes Dheepan’s situation: he’s a refugee, former soldier who needs to get out of Dodge ASAP after the brutal Sri Lankan civil war takes everything from him. He escapes with baggage in the form of a new wife and daughter, a ruse his smugglers impose, a lie he doesn’t wear well. Just when the weight of Dheepan’s tragic past comes into clear focus – his PTSD from years on the battlefield, the loss of his blood family – the movie centralizes Illayaal, the family’s daughter who is played amazingly by Claudine Vinasithamby. She is an orphan in a new land who is suddenly essential to this new family, and not just in the context of the ruse – she has also become their translator.

The movie moves with her for a solid third of its run time (at least it felt that way) before finally moving to Yalini. Kalieaswari Srinivasan deserves all the awards for her turn as Yalini, a resourceful, petulant, mischievous, powerful, funny, charming, impulsive polymath who glues the family and the film together. She plays the glue reluctantly, railing against the expectation that she must “mother” a child she has only just met. She instead embodies a kind of rigorously rational self-interest that at one point has her fleeing the scene of the war zone she encounters in France, having just fled a war zone at home.

Srinivasan’s performance is unquestionably the work of a sensitive artist who is in control of her instrument. She struck me as someone who has rigorously studied and developed a process for surrendering herself to the character. I have been disappointed to see her spoken of in the press as a “non-actor.” In reality, Ms. Srinivasan is a trained actress with lots of theater experience under her belt. I do not clarify this in order to say that calling a trained actor a “non-actor” is inherently derogatory. What I have witnessed within the subtext of this easily debunked factual error is a particular brand of adulation reserved for us melenated masses — an exoticization that rests in the desire to see black and brown people as naturally “touched,” “magical” or “gifted,” as opposed to diligent and disciplined in the honing and mastery of their craft.

Walking out of the theater, I felt a thick sadness overtake me. I was sad because there were only five people in the theater, and that is a tragedy whose size can’t be overstated. An ever-worsening refugee crisis has ebbed and flowed across the globe; we have been in this crisis grip more or less since the dawn of colonialism. Given this contemporary history, Dheepan is the movie the world needs. These are characters we need. We need them in order to explore our current condition in more poetic terms than the news allows, on more human terms than the data allows. This is a human crisis that sustains itself on the greatest of sins: apathy.

This film won’t bridge the empathy gap and cure apathy, but it’s an attempt I respect. It’s a start, it’s what we need. And because of a capitalism that privileges copies of copies, a white supremacy that privileges white protagonists, and the English supremacy / American illiteracy that has cast the act of reading subtitles as something akin to drinking a quart of cod liver oil, this movie goes underwatched and underamplified while shit like Batman v. Whoever consumes the energy of our dollars, our eyes, and our ink.

What a world, indeed.

Terence Nance is an artist originally from Dallas, TX. His first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won a Gotham Independent Film Award. The album of the same title will be released later this year.