NEW YORK (AP) — French director Jacques Audiard is a curious combination of art-house auteur and genre filmmaker, a brazen showman and gritty naturalist. He makes tender and brutal movies that recast themselves as they twist their way toward unpredictable finales. To suit tales of transformation (his specialty), he switches genres mid-movie like a character changing wardrobe.
In "Dheepan," which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, he travels from war movie to migrant drama to film noir, adding an atypically happy ending, to boot. Audiard's restless shifts can be jarring, but the intensity of his film doesn't waver; the power of "Dheepan" is in its volatility.
It begins in fire. Fleeting scenes capture a burning Sri Lankan village in the bloody, disorienting aftermath of civil war. To gain asylum, a rebel fighter (played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, himself a former Tamil Tiger child soldier turned acclaimed writer in France) who, having lost his family in the war, cobbles together a pseudo family.
At a refugee camp, he picks a woman, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and an orphaned 9-year-old girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) to pose as his family. "Dheepan" becomes his new name, taking the identity and passport of a dead man.
Borders change, but the threat of violence merely mutates. Placed in a tenement block in Paris' banlieues, Dheepan warily eyes the drug-dealing gang members that patrol the apartment building roofs and clog the stairwells.
He gains a foothold as a caretaker of the tenement and Yalini, slower to adjust, finds a job caring for the father of an imprisoned gang lieutenant. When she tries to gauge the level of fearsomeness the local gangs deserves, she wonders if they're like those in Sri Lanka. Dheepan replies, "Sort of, but less dangerous."
They tersely, awkwardly begin becoming more authentically a family. But pressure around them is gradually growing, not just in altercations with the gang but Dheepan's soldier past catches up with him through other Sri Lankan refugees.
It goes without saying that a film about the dislocation and confusion of refugees in poor Europe neighborhoods is strikingly timely. The film has undeniable political relevance to France's immigrant policies, but it's not quite a social issues film.
Audiard has said "Dheepan" was inspired by Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" (1971) and his focus on Sri Lankan immigrants was chosen largely for narrative purposes. But the movie is deeply invested in understanding the lives of migrants trying to recalibrate on the margins of a foreign society.
Some have mourned the film's late, explosive turn into thriller territory and been befuddled by its dream-like epilogue. But for Audiard, whose "Rust and Bone" chronicled the revival of a badly injured killer-whale trainer and whose Oscar-nominated "A Prophet" depicted a small-time criminal's rise in a prison's Corsican mob, rebirth is a mean and messy business. But it's also beautiful.
"Dheepan," an IFC release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity." Running time: 115 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP