“They have gangs here too?” asks Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). As he gestures toward a group of men, Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) answers, “Yes, but they are not as violent as ours.” By “ours,” Dheepan means the gangs in Sri Lanka, the country from which he, Yalini, and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) have fled. Now, at the start of Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, screening in competition at Cannes, they’re in the Parisian suburbs, and all too aware that they haven’t escaped their civil war just yet.
In order to make this point, the film mixes genres. Initially, it unfolds as a realist immigrant French banlieu story, as Dheepan abandons his post as an officer with the rebel Tamil Tigers. (We later find out that he lost a wife and two children in the conflict.) In Paris, he ends up a humble caretaker for a few buildings populated by working class French citizens and immigrants of all stripes, while Illayaal enters school to learn French and Yalini finds work cleaning and making meals for a disabled man in one of the buildings. All three deal with the usual period of adjustment. Dheepan is haunted by the violence he lived through at home, Illayall feels out of place at school, and Yalini longs to join her cousin in England, which is depicted oddly and inaccurately as a peaceful alternative to conflict-ravaged France.
Still, Dheepan is determined to stay. Cinematographer Eponine Momenceau’s wide shots consistently reveal the squalor of the projects, as the film follows Dheepan’s efforts, working with a toolbox he lovingly made by hand from leftover wood and plastic, to make his environment comfortable and safe. His relationship with Yalini grows increasingly tender; it seems like he’s made it.
Then the film turns into an explosive gangster tale, propelled by Nicolas Jaar‘s electronic score. The buildings’ owner works for the thugs across the yard; the owner of the flat where Yalini works is one of the gang’s bosses, and Yalini and Illayall find themselves in a middle of a shootout. Reluctantly, Dheepan calls on his military skills to protect his makeshift family. When he takes a machete out of his handmade toolbox, we see not only his potential heroism, but also, as he must leave behind his hopes for security, the price he pays for it.
The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Lobster, another film in competition at Cannes, also considers war, not between rival gangs, but rather between rival ways of life. This imaginative anti-utopian fantasy conjures a world where single people from the City are confined to the Hotel, where they have to find a mate in 45 days or else they are turned into animals of their choice. Hotel guests can prolong their stay by making war on the resistance, comprised of single people who live in the Woods and call themselves Loners. David (Colin Farrell) opts to become the lobster if he fails. “Original”, replies the nonplussed hotel manager (Olivia Colman) in the same monotone used by everyone in this world. “Most people select to be dogs.”
Film: The Lobster
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, Angeliki Papoulia
This deadpan satire, invented by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos together with his frequent collaborator writer Efthimis Filippou, is bizarre in every detail, yet familiar too. The Hotel’s oppressive rehabilitation procedures, made all the more unbearable by somber interiors and the dark uniforms of the cheerless staff, take the matching algorithms of OkCupid and Tinder to their logical extreme. The autistic citizens in The Lobster cannot couple up unless they find a verifiable commonality in another person, both piano playing and nearsightedness qualify. David, an overweight, bespectacled architect from the City, ends up at the Hotel after his wife leaves him for another man. “Does he wear glasses or lenses?” he asks bitterly as she departs.
At the Hotel, David is subjected to a series of macabre activities, such as spending his first day with one hand shackled behind his back, designed to reinforce the virtues of couplehood. He tries to con a heartless woman (Angeliki Papoulia) into being his mate, kicking a child to convince her of his matching cruelty, among other things. But when she kills his dog (formerly his brother) to test him, he fails. Instead, he gains the resolve to avenge his brother and flee into the Woods.
The war does not end there. The alternative guerrilla singles ideology turn out to be equally dark (filmed in Ireland’s cloudy seaside County Kerry), governed by a rebel leader (Lea Seydoux). She punishes any romantic interaction, even flirting, and directs incursions into enemy territory to break up couples. In one of the funniest scenes, she invades the hotel managers’ chamber and threatens to have one shoot the other. “How much do your love your wife, on the scale from one to 15?” she asks. After a long pause, the husband replies, “14”, then fires. When David predictably does find a mate (Rachel Weisz), they have to hide, but also, however briefly, they offer a glimpse of an alternative future, after war.