Dheepan is Jacques Audiard's most Scorsese-like film, and all the better for it. It's critical elevation (it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year) no doubt owes something to the salience of the refugee crisis, but it probably owes as much to the subtlety of the film's analysis of migration and motivation. A recurrent motif is the elephant, both real and in the invocation of Ganesh, the Hindu god, who represents the often incompatible boons of good fortune and wisdom. The desire for the trappings of success, and how this takes us away from wisdom, is central to the film's story. While lacking the grandeur of Audiard's Un Prophet, it shares many of the same concerns about the construction of identity and the manner in which this is governed by the fluctuation between the state's overpowering presence and its devastating absence, for example in the way that gangs carve out a territory within a prison, or in the way that refugees are first corralled and inspected and then dumped and deserted.
The film starts in Sri Lanka where a Tamil Tiger fighter, Sivadhasan, first cremates his dead comrades and then throws his uniform on the pyre, signalling his retirement from a conflict that is now lost. In a refugee camp, he is joined with a single woman and an orphaned girl to create a family that will stand a better chance of gaining asylum in Europe by satisfying bureaucratic expectations. To this end he adopts the identity of a dead man, Dheepan, while the woman, who wants to get to England where she has a cousin, becomes Yalini, his wife, and the girl the 9-year old daughter, Illayaal. The family reach France, much to Yalini's disappointment, where during his interview the translator advises Dheepan to drop the implausible tale of having worked for an NGO and simply plead that he was tortured by the army (a force we never see). Being a victim is a more credible role in a world where human rights activists are often privileged westerners.
The family are resettled in a banlieue of Paris, where most of the inhabitants are first, second or third-generation immigrants, largely from North and sub-Saharan Africa. Dheepan is given the job of caretaker for a block of flats, adjacent to another that is under the control of a local gang and used for drug-dealing, parties and the ostentatious display of criminal glamour and material gain in the form of expensive cars. He applies himself enthusiastically to the work, progressing from sweeping floors to fixing electrics and even mending the broken lift. He even finds time to help old ladies with their shopping. Illayaal goes to school and, after initial playground rejection and tears, begins to integrate and develop a love of poetry. The still reluctant Yalini takes a job as the carer of Mr Habib, the mute and disabled father of gang leader Brahim, freshly returned from jail. The three begin to believe in themselves as a family, so much so that Dheepan and Yalini eventually start a sexual relationship, but the happiness is only skin-deep.
Everyone is a stranger to each other, though they eagerly seek connection or a modus vivendi, and language is a frustration as much as a tool. They are torn between trying to hold on to and honour their past and making alliances to build a future. In one scene Dheepan creates a shrine to the "real" family he has lost in Sri Lanka. In another he meets his old commander, a PSTD sufferer who still believes the Tiger's cause can be revived but who is descending into madness. He turns violent in the face of scepticism and Dheepan accepts his blows, reluctant to strike back. At times the characters tire of the effort at communication though they appreciate the therapeutic power of talking, and even reciting and singing, whether to the void or an uncomprehending listener. Eventually this is reduced to gesture: just nod your head and smile.
Migration means adopting a suitable identity. One gang-member confides to Dheepan, who gives no convincing sign he understands a word, that he and the others are brought in from different banlieues and paid per day by Brahim so they have no local loyalties or emotional investment in the estate. In other words, he is migrant labour too, but white and native. The tension between loyalty and betrayal is played out in the family, not just Dheepan's (Yalini is attracted to the gang leader) but in Brahim's immediate family (his father was injured in a shooting and his uncle killed) and the extended family of the gang. Brahim sees himself as a small businessman ("un commercant"), but he is also the nearest thing to a physical representation of government on the estate with his electronic ankle-tag (improbably, we never see the police appear, despite gunshots being casually loosed-off).
Yalini, terrified by a drive-by shooting as an internecine gang conflict erupts, flees to the train station, intending to join her cousin in London, but is roughly dissuaded by Dheepan who confiscates her passport. He then confronts some gang members, now patrolling the wider estate, when they attempt to search Yalini on their return. She is unimpressed by his chivalry: "I am not your wife" she reminds him, accusing him of believing his own lies. Ever practical, he diverts his anger into drawing a white line on the scruffed earth between the blocks to mark a "no fire zone", which ironically means he has drawn a target on his own back. In contrast, Brahim fails to quell the disloyalty in his extended family and is shot in an attempted coup. Mortally wounded, he restrains Yalini, there to make Mr Habib's meal (the old man is killed outright), and demands she help him. She calls Dheepan, who awakes from a booze-induced slumber, still feeling guilty about his treatment of her, which marks the start of the climactic scene.
The bloody denouement is improbable but dramatically satisfying. Dheepan becomes an avenger, something few immigrants would risk in the face of deportation, improvising weapons like a handyman John Rambo. This is where the film's debt to Scorsese's Taxi Driver is most obvious (Audiard has confirmed this), with its stylised treatment of the scene where he takes the stairs involving an unsual camera angle (we're level with his lower legs), a sense of near-slow-motion as he patiently ascends, and the hellish smoke that obscures most of the mayhem as he shoots or stabs one thug after another. He had been drinking, so perhaps this is a waking dream between Yalini's call and his arrival at the flat to find Brahim now dead and the other gang members fled. When he is reunited with Yalini he suddenly seems jumpy after his supposed impeturbability as he laid waste to the gang on the way up. Is this a triumph or just another in a series of defeats?
There are many small gestures to Taxi Driver along the way, such as the protagonist's practical inventiveness: Travis Bickle constructs a holster, Dheepan a tool box. After the prologue in Sri Lanka, Dheepan emerges out of the gloom of night in Paris wearing a cheap, flourescent headband, part of the tat he is trying to illegally hawk on the streets as he waits for his asylum claim to be processed, which echoes the emergence of the headlights of Travis Bickle's yellow cab amidst the billowing steam vents of New York. The cry goes up, "les flics!", and Dheepan and the other hawkers scarper, but we never see the forces of law and order. This is where the film departs from Taxi Driver, where politicians and police were very visible. The agents of the state we do see, the imigration official who interviews Dheepan and the headmistress who interviews the family, are well-meaning but remote, a factor of class rather than ethnicity or language.
Like Scorsese's masterpiece there is a coda that is undoubtedly a dream: Dheepan is seen in London a year or two later, driving a black cab, returning to a well-appointed suburban house and his family (Yalini with newborn in arms, Illayaal playing with new friends), enjoying a multicultural social circle in a large garden lit by a golden light that appears more typical of Jaffna than Ealing. He appears to have acquired "The Knowledge" and a financially and emotionally rich life in double-quick time, but that is surely ironic. Some critics were disappointed with the ending, both on grounds of style and plausibility, but I think this misses the key point that all immigrant narratives are predicated on unreasonable expectations: on dreams of material success and cinematic glory. Why else would you take the risks of migration? The elephant reminds us that wisdom is hard-won.