These are two new French films set in the rough cités of the northern Paris banlieues and which I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. ‘Dheepan’, as one likely knows, was the surprise Palme d’or laureate at Cannes last May. The pic begins in a DP camp in far northern Sri Lanka, at what looks to be the moment of the army’s final victory over the LTTE insurgency (which would set it in 2009). LTTE fighter Sivadhasan—actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who was an LTTE guerrilla himself in his youth, so is familiar with the subject matter—is trying to hightail it out of the country—and for good reason, in view of the behavior of the Sri Lankan army after its victory (not to mention before)—for which he is aided by LTTE higher-ups, who furnish him with the passport of a dead fighter named Dheepan, that thus becomes Sivadhasan’s new identity. To improve his asylum chances abroad, he has to constitute a bogus family en catastrophe—his own has been killed—so does so with young widow Yalini (actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and nine-year-old orphan Illayaal (played by the impressive Claudine Vinasithamby, who was in primary school in the Paris area when she was cast for the role). They make the short hop by boat across the Palk Strait to India and then to Paris by plane (how that happened was not clear; did they get visas at the French consulate in Chennai? I’d be curious to know how this works, in view of the large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees France has received over the past 25-30 years).
Once in Paris, Dheepan requests political asylum for himself and his “family,” aided in crafting a halfway plausible story by his Tamil translator during the interview with the French case officer. The translator essentially makes up Dheepan’s story for him, with the fonctionnaire naturally not understanding a thing of what the two men are discussing and concocting. This bit I found interesting, as it points up a real problem in evaluating asylum requests, which is that asylum seekers can and do fabricate part or all of their stories—for which one can hardly blame them—and that are difficult, when not impossible, to verify by the host country authorities. And the veritable stories of many asylum seekers are indeed ambiguous. Dheepan, e.g., had well-founded reasons to fear that his civil rights, if not his physical integrity, would be violated were he to be taken into custody by the authorities of his country. On this level, his asylum application would be a no-brainer. But he had also been a fighter with an insurgent organization that carried out numerous atrocities, assassinations of elected officials—and in more than one country—and acts of terrorism—with it thus being designated as a terrorist organization by the EU, US, and others—which could result in the rejection of his asylum request. While watching ‘Dheepan’ I thought of the very good 2013 Sri Lankan film ‘Ini Avan’, which I wrote about at the time. The protag in that one, a former LTTE fighter, was not being sought by the authorities but, in view of his past, had become a social outcast and with his only option for making a living being criminality, of accepting offers he couldn’t refuse. And he was at permanent risk of retribution and from both sides. Had he been an asylum seeker in Europe, he would have had a strong case.
Returning to the film in question, after Dheepan’s asylum request is filed—and in France the process can take up to two years—he receives a job offer, to be gardien d’immeuble (superintendent) in a slummy building in a trashy cité, incongruously named Le Pré (the meadow), up in the Val d’Oise. This cité is as bad as they get: spatially isolated, populated entirely by immigrant families from the African continent—with nary a Français de souche in sight—and with rival drug-dealing gangs ruling the roost and engaging in periodic turf wars settled with semi-automatic weapons. If France allowed televised political advertising, the Front National would have a field day with images from the film. But a job is a job and an apartment that comes with it—even if it’s a dump—is an apartment, so Dheepan and his “family” take up residence there no complaints (this may be a movie—and thus fiction—but the image of immigrants willingly taking jobs that no one born and raised in France would do is real). Most of the film is set entirely in the cité and with three storylines, the first of the reality of their “family” situation, the couple of Dheepan and Yalini being purely instrumental, pour la forme, and devoid of sentiments—during most of the pic, at least—and with Yalini refusing to play mother to Illayaal, but with Dheepan nonetheless trying to build a normal life for them. And then there’s their adjustment to life in France, not speaking French—most of the film is in Tamil—and with the cité in which they live resembling nothing that the vast majority of French and non-Frenchmen alike would recognize as France. Dheepan, who has handyman skills, puts 100% into his job—he’s not a slacker (immigrants never are)—and forges a camaraderie with the older men in the building, who sit on the rooftop drinking and talking, while their gang-banger sons—over whom they have no authority—occupy the grounds of the cité below. Yalini finds relatively lucrative employment tending to the infirm father of the caïd, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), of one of the gangs, who’s nice to her but is not someone whose bad side one wants to get on. Illayaal has social adjustment problems in school. And then there’s the gang violence in the cité, that harks back to what Dheepan et al left in Sri Lanka and from which they cannot escape.
I found it an absorbing, well-acted film. The tension slowly builds, as you know something is going to happen. And—spoiler alert!—it does with Dheepan, who, fearing for the safety of Yalini and Illayaal, and fed up with the gangs and their crap, employs the skills he mastered as an LTTE fighter to bring the voyous to heel and clean up the cité. But the paroxysm of violence at the end sent the film into genre territory, as more than one reviewer observed. We’ve seen it countless time (I thought of the final scene in ‘Straw Dogs’). This was too bad. As one critic incisively tweeted: “It was 80% a great film…and then it wasn’t. Va savoir.” And the rose-tinted final scene, of Dheepan and the family—now a real one—settled in middle-class English suburbia, was problematic and on three levels: 1. The nightmare of France and its cités are starkly contrasted with the idyll of England (if current refugee/migrants in Calais were to see the scene, they would redouble their efforts to get across the Channel), suggesting a curious—and debatable—parti pris on director Jacques Audiard’s part. 2. How do Sri Lankan asylum seekers in France receive authorization and then visas to move to the UK anyway? and 3. How does a man who has just killed several persons in a bloodbath—even if they were lowlifes just asking to be whacked—get off the legal hook so quickly? I know that one sometimes has to suspend credulity for movies but still. So while I will give it the thumbs up, what could have been a great film turned out to be merely a good film and with a couple of issues. It is not on the same level as Audiard’s chef d’œuvre ‘Un prophet,’ though ranks above ‘Rust and Bone’, which I didn’t like too much. As mentioned above, its Palme d’or was greeted with surprise by critics at Cannes. As I have seen only one of the other nineteen pics that were in competition, I can’t say for myself if it was deserved or not. French reviews are good on the whole—critics and Allociné spectateurs alike—though the Africultures website critiqued what it saw as the film’s clichéd, stereotyped portrayal of the banlieues. Hollywood press reviews are also good grosso modo, notably the ones in Indiewire and THR. Trailer is here.
The second film is ‘La Vie en grand’ (English title: Learn By Heart), the directorial debut of Mathieu Vadepied and which also premiered at Cannes (though not in competition for the Palme). This one is set in a cité in the neuf-trois, also gang-ridden, where 14-year-old Adama (first-time actor Balamine Guirassy) lives with his Senegalese immigrant mother, Fatou (actress Leontina Fall), who has been constrained by a judge to live apart from her polygamous husband—as living in a polygamous household will get one’s carte de séjour cancelled—and is having difficulty making ends meet. Adama is an indifferent student at school and on the verge of expulsion for failing grades, which are not due to lack of ability but rather his preoccupation with his mother’s precarious financial situation, having to work the marchés at dawn to earn a little money, and his separation from his (half) siblings, who live in another banlieue and whom he misses. One day his buddy, the 11-year-old Mamadou (Ali Bidanessy), finds a quantity of hashish, comme ça, and then Adama finds even an even greater quantity (this one dumped by dealers during a police raid), which the two decide to sell to the upscale kids at the local private lycée. So they go into business together, though with Adama only wanting to make money to help his mother. But as drug dealing is a dangerous business, not only because it’s illegal but as new entrants inevitably encroach on the turf of other dealers—and who are never nice people—Adama gets into trouble with some badass motherfuckers, who decide to make him and Mamadou work for them. One thinks of the runners in season 4 of the The Wire. But Adama tries to outwit the caïds all while striving to keep up with his schoolwork and avoid expulsion. And aided by three of his teachers plus the school principal—who are firm with him but go all out to help him succeed—he does so.
The school, with its teachers and principal, are Adama’s salvation. The film is a paean to l’école de la République. If I were a fonctionnaire with l’Éducation nationale, I would love the pic. And as for me, I did like it. Despite the subject matter it ends up being a feel good movie, mainly as Adama and Mamadou are absolutely, totally adorable. They’re boys you care about and want to help, indeed give a big hug to. And then there’s the happy ending (no spoilers). Going into the theater I was under the impression that the pic would be a comedy. It’s more of a dramedy, though, with the comedy part being one particularly hilarious scene, when Adama, who is ordered by the principal to bring his father to school the next day for an urgent meeting—but which Adama cannot and will not do—pays a clochard to accompany him and impersonate his father. This is one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen on the screen this year. Reviews of the film—by critics and spectateurs—are mostly good, though Africultures, in the link above, sniffed that the film’s feel good side served to downplay the complexity of the problems of the banlieues (and which the functioning of the educational system is a part of). Bof. Trailer is here.