‘Dheepan’
Director:
Jacques Audiard
Stars: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

The French drama “Dheepan” scored the top prize at Cannes last year, but likely not just because it’s a sobering, harrowing look at migrants. Important issues in and of themselves don’t typically appeal to the fest’s juries; there has to be something more. Indeed there is. Where something like last year’s “Rumba” aims to be populist and sentimental, “Dheepan” is a subjective nightmare. But it’s also one where the unease of its characters — Sri Lankan refugees who find themselves in France — is reflected in the way the film is made. Identity and even genre are frequently blurred, and the glaze of handheld realism is punctuated by bits of humor and flights of surreal expressionism. Late in it even turns into an art house action movie.

RELATED: Review: "A Bigger Splash" is good, intoxicating wealth porn

Not that “Dheepan” ever feels gimmicky. Director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone”) is serious about revealing society’s invisible people. Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is a former Tamil Tiger who finds — a woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a young girl (Claudine Vinasithamby) — to pose as a unit. Turns out he happened upon passports belonging to a dead family. (Sivadhasan winds up with someone named Dheepan.) They’re surprised to learn they’re heading for Paris, and once they’re there their life becomes a different kind of difficult. Their odd jobs are dodgy, and the housing projects in which they live is worse: plagued by gangs whose warfare is slowly but surely turning nearly as dangerous as the turmoil they left behind.

This is the latest from Jacques Audiard, who has eked out a career as one of the quietest weirdos in France. He makes dramas that look like the usual austere exports that play to art house audiences, but he throws in a few leftfield elements to jazz things up. His break-through, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” was a remake of an eccentric American neo-noir (James Toback’s “Fingers”). “Rust and Bone” was a relationship drama, but in which one of the lovers (Marion Cotillard) had lost her legs to a whale. (“A Prophet,” his most popular film, is merely extremely insightful and optimistic about the way migrants are redefining France’s cultural identity.)

RELATED: BAM's "Labor of Love" series looks at cinematic courtship

The qualities that make “Dheepan” special can be loud and ostentatious — see again: the action movie closer — but they’re usually subtle and, ultimately, refreshing. “Dheepan”’s three protagonists aren’t always portrayed as mere victims, even though they are. They aren’t defined entirely by their plights. They’re savvy. They know when to keep quiet; they know how to grift when necessary. They’re active, not passive participants in their own life, even when they can’t control the mayhem erupting around them. They have tempers and weaknesses and sex drives. Jesuthasan, a real former Tamil Tiger, has a natural way of conveying furtive intelligence underneath his emotionally remote exterior. Srinivasan is even better — a wallflower who every now and then bursts into rages or sneaks a few puffs from her employer’s joint.

As usual, Audiard’s patient world building is sometimes too patient and not always involving, even when his scenes have a base level of fine-ness. But he’s gotten even better at suddenly slipping into moments of abstract, even witty beauty. He introduces our heroes in Paris with the bizarre sight of flashing purple lights amidst a sea of darkness, before revealing Sivadhasan truly odd job: illegally hawking party hats on the street. There are plenty more instances like that, and it doesn’t just show that Audiard knows how to use a camera. It keeps us in a state of unease, ready for whatever unusual or dangerous business Audiard might throw us. In other words, it puts us in the general headspace of characters who can rarely imagine the future, even the one right in front of them.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge