There’s a saying that with great success comes a reputation for wisdom and though this would indeed be a very apt quotation for those looking to knavishly benefit from their crowning achievements I personally strongly disagree otherwise. Why? Because I have Belgium’s very own filmmaking duo, the Dardenne brothers, as proof that even long before your cool stream of success you can possess a torrent of wisdom. And with this success comes rewards aplenty and with the exception of your work being viewed by an audience there is possibly no greater reward as a filmmaker than for your work to be added to and distributed by the Criterion Collection. In this case, the sage Dardenne brothers have finally, after six films during their incredible (and consistent) sixteen year career, have been handsomely rewarded by the people at the Criterion Collection; their 1996 breakthrough feature film debut La promesse and the 1999 critically acclaimed follow-up Rosetta have been proudly bestowed to loyal fans of their films who have been anticipating this event, as well as a brand new audience who has yet to experience their wonderful work.
But before the Dardenne brothers reached the masses with their international successful feature film La promesse in 1996, they began their careers as filmmakers in the late 1970s making narrative and documentary films. The brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc who grew up in the gritty, postindustrial Belgium, respectively studied drama and philosophy in school. What might seem like completely useless information that reads more like a book report for class than a column is actually important seeing as all of the facts I have just mentioned play a crucial role in the brothers feature work. Drama and (to a lesser extent) philosophy, the up close and personal documentary (or cinéma vérité) style of directing, gritty and unsympathetic postindustrial Belgium landscapes, are all so omnipresent in many of their films. The Dardenne brothers concern themselves with creating films that put realism on the screen without using artifice or cinematic trickery to distract the audience from the socially aware message at the core of their narratives.
Often the filmmaking duo is unfairly compared to the Danish Dogme 95 movement (manifesto, whatever they’re calling it these days) but unlike the directors in that movement (Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg) the brothers are quite unconcerned with changing the face of cinematic reality, but rather by creating honest, often bleak works of cinema that take their character from despair, to hope, and sometimes right back to despair, in order to give the audience a taste of a world away from the more comfortable social milieu we might be accustomed to. This concept for filmmaking could be read as hypocritical admittedly, and although the occasional heavy-handed quality of the brothers’ work does intermittently seem to become preachy, there is almost always ample opportunity to deliver some moments of earth-shattering drama. Their feature debut La promesse is actually a great debut for the brothers because it prepares you for their follow-up Rosetta. Both films present characters that are continually forced to the brink of despair, but desperate to pull themselves back.
In La promesse the Dardenne brothers create a world that isn’t a million miles away from the current social climate in the United States; with building sites, smoky pubs and migrant workers peppering what is essentially the typical rites of passage/coming of age film so familiar even by the usual Hollywood standards. But still, La promesse offers so little of the cliché American directors that at first it seems boringly mundane. But an interesting morality-play soon puts the viewer’s mind to work. The brothers rest their narrative firmly on the shoulders of young newcomer Jérémie Rénier (who will appear in later Dardenne films) as Igor, a teenage tearaway forced into looking after a young black mother and her baby following the death of the woman’s husband whilst working for the company illegally run by Igor’s father. The brothers season their film with an abundance of topical, moralistic issues such as the passage into adulthood, immigration and domestic abuse, but at the center of the drama there is still room for hope in the touching father son relationship between Igor and his disparate father (played here by regular Dardenne collaborator Olivier Gourmet). La promesse might not be a groundbreaking film; its ideas are well worn and its scenarios familiar from the classic kitchen-sink cinema but the process of refinement that the brothers are able to create with the subtle shading of characters and the no-nonsense approach to filmmaking is really quite affecting on the most personal and emotional of levels.
Their careful handling of young Igor would pay off dividends on their remarkable follow-up, Rosetta, where they examine the philosophical, spiritual, psychological burden of unemployment through the title character, played by then seventeen year old newcomer Émilie Dequenne. One passage, in which the seventeen year old Rosetta is virtually exploited by a company for cheap labor, led to Belgium changing several laws, banning employers from paying teenage workers less than the minimum wage. It’s a tiny, condescending, almost insignificant real-life gesture, but the kind of little gestures which keep today’s Rosettas alive nevertheless. The film isn’t only about Rosetta’s daily struggles for survival, but the blind eyed turned toward an entire stratum of society. Rosetta is a member of a socio-economic class which the world refuses to deal with, let alone acknowledge. Like a disease, she finds herself being pushed further and further out.
Top of the list things to hate about Rosetta and the Dardenne brothers’ work is their decision to shoot hand held, something that is obviously indebted to their days making documentaries. Some understand it but just can’t quite comprehend it. Rosetta is a film which follows its heroine, therefore, by mounting the camera almost on her shoulders, we see the world as she sees it, just as we see the world as she thinks it throughout the rest of the film. Most perfect is a scene when she is lying in bed at the house of Ricquet, her (only) friend, when she reassures herself that she’s normal, she’s found a friend, a real job and that she won’t fall into the hole. Seldom is a more perfect and more touching marriage and explanation of the inner-self and its outer-conflicts achieved (?). It’s just magnificent cinema. The Dardenne brothers make no excuses or apologies for their presentation of Rosetta’s strivings, delivering a film that charts how far individuals can fall. Consistently raw and at times brutal, the film nevertheless proposes no answers, expects no sympathy, it merely conveys and evokes with a clear, uncompromising eye the bleak struggle for existence that is, for some, the total of what life has to offer. Harsh, but utterly compelling viewing.
La promesse and Rosetta were the only two Dardenne brothers’ films to be picked up by the Criterion Collection and while they are excellent picks, they shouldn’t have stopped there. Personally I would have loved for video-distribution company that sells “important classic and contemporary films” to release a box set with all six Dardenne feature films because if we’re going by their company motto then all six should, in fact, be there. No question about it. Their next film, 2002’s The Son, which I placed at number three on my list of twenty five favorite films of the 2000s, is perhaps the brothers at their very best. The practice of work is also central to The Son, a deceptively simple film about revenge and/or redemption. In The Son, the brothers are obsessed with work in the way that some of their European counterparts are obsessed with sex: the textures and rhythms of manual labor are, for them, at once irreducibly physical and saturated with an almost spiritual significance. Oliver teaches carpentry in a trade school for wayward boys that’s a transition from juvenile detention to life in society.
The Son can be seen as a slight… very, very slight departure from the brothers previous work in that it’s not the sort of film that will get legislature named after it as Olivier’s carpentry is observed with unstinting and careful detail; it is not a means for sustenance but a means for existence. The camera focuses on Olivier, tightly on his head and shoulders, relentlessly on him. He walks around the workshop and school. He makes sure a board is run through a chainsaw properly, a student uses the proper malt to hammer at wood, everything is measured correctly, how to carry lumber, and even tell them apart. The Son is equal parts drama and philosophy, with some saying the film is religious (Christian) allegory. I always imagined out of all the films in the Dardenne brothers’ catalog The Son would be the one to be in the Criterion Collection. For all the seeming roughness of the technique and the lack of flourishes, the effect in the film is masterful. Where La promesse is about conscience and morality and Rosetta is a shattering, absorbing study of the human spirit The Son teaches us what it means to be human again.
In 2005 the Dardenne brothers returned to cinema with The Child, a fully realized, powerful work of art that brings back actor Jérémie Rénier, ten years after his impressive debut in La promesse. Set in an industrial city in eastern Belgium, The Child is shot with the unmistakable Dardenne trademarks: a shaky hand held camera, natural sounds with no background music, a concern for the underclass that globalization left behind, and an overall gritty and realistic look and feel. The Child follows Rénier’s Bruno who is a petty thief, panhandler and slacker, and his girlfriend Sonia after she gives birth to their child, Jimmy. It is clear that he loves Sonia but only in a playful, childlike way, not in a manner that recognizes adult responsibility. The brothers show us those intimate, personal moments where the young couple giggles and horse-playing like innocent school children insisting that the title of the film is not as obvious as it first appears. Bruno lives for the moment rather than in the moment, pursuing instant gratification without thinking of how his actions may affect others. In a heart shattering scene, acting on a tip from a sketchy business associate, Bruno impulsively decides on his own to sell Jimmy to a criminally connected adoption agency without thinking about how Sonia will react.
The Dardenne brothers do not tell us how to feel about Bruno and we are left to sort out our own reactions. “A film is not a court of justice,” says brother Jean-Pierre. “We try to make it so that the viewer feels many things about Bruno. When you see him selling the child, you think, ‘No, this can’t be, this is impossible.’ But then the more you see him, the more you realize he’s not just a bastard. You are forced to try to understand the character.” When Bruno tells Sonia about selling Jimmy, she collapses and is rushed to the hospital. Bruno, showing remorse, tries to rescind the deal and retrieve Jimmy but is in over his head with a ruthless gang that demands he pay them a small fortune to compensate for their losses. Bruno begs Sonia to take him back and forgive him but she adamantly refuses his desperate plea. The more he tries to put his life in order, the deeper it sinks into chaos and, in a daring chase sequence that is to rival anything written by Hollywood big shots, his reckless actions endanger the life of Steve, his trusty fourteen year old criminal partner.
Similar to that of the Dardenne brothers’ earlier films, the power of The Child is cumulative. As Bruno evolves and we become more aware of his vulnerability, our capacity for forgiveness is challenged and the film prompts us to grow along with the character. In an ending that is unique and painfully touching, The Child achieves a rare authenticity. The Dardenne brothers keep the high emotions in check for the majority of the film, and when they finally allow us a moment to let it out at the end, there’s a feeling of completion with these characters. The young couple weeps together openly, but it’s a scene void of any dialogue between the two and that leaves its true meaning open to interpretation for the viewer. Is it a moment of forgiveness, of reprieve or just a devastating act of agony, unable to come to terms with the circumstances of life they have put themselves in? No matter what it means, it’s an incredibly powerful moment that allows for a full emotional catharsis for both the characters and the audience.
By this point in Dardenne brothers already acclaimed twelve year career they have formed a habit of immersing the audience in the muck of life, then casually reminding us that, in case we forgot, we are surrounded by beauty. Their fifth film, Lorna’s Silence, is full of the trials of conflicted humanity with all too visible surface scars hiding its true nature. Set in the Belgian city of Liege, Lorna, an Albanian immigrant, is eager to realize her dream of owning a snack shop together with her boyfriend Sokol, a long-distance truck driver. In order to pursue this goal, she has paid the sleazy mob-connected Fabio to arrange a marriage with a Belgian heroin addict, Claudy (Jérémie Rénier, again), in exchange for Belgian citizenship. Lorna’s Silence is the brothers much anticipated follow-up to their Cannes Palme d’Or winning The Child. But Lorna’s Silence has little in common with The Child and has more of a passing connection with Rosetta. After all Dardenne brother Luc has said that the film, like Rosetta, is “about a young woman who has every reason to be desperate and who continues to believe that everything is possible.”
Lorna’s Silence is also, perhaps, the Dardenne brothers’ least popular film and it just might have something to do with the filmmaking duo deciding to take a surprisingly unique approach to their style in that they made it look more like a film than anything they had done before. Gone are the intimate, gritty hand held tracking shots that place the audience into the perspective of the characters and shoot from odd, seemingly improvised angles. Instead, each shot here is much more staged and deliberate, focused on titular Lorna and making sure the audience is able to appreciate all of her surroundings in each moment. It was an interesting approach from the brothers and I have to admit a little jarring at first, but this step into a more conventional shooting style provided the film with a contrast from their previous work that I certainly appreciated. As much as I adore their other work, it was nice to see them trying something new and ultimately it worked. The more conventional style does a service for the more conventional narrative structure of the film as well, as for the first time they work with a central plot that encompasses the entire picture, rather than focusing on a more free-formed character study.
There was a lot of pressure for the brothers to impress with their next film, especially after what many saw as a less than perfect Lorna’s Silence. Their latest film, The Kid with a Bike, released last year, once again demonstrates their indelible mastery for crafting character studies around broken souls. If 2008’s Lorna’s Silence was the first documented misstep in the Dardenne brothers impressive catalog of work then The Kid with a Bike is the necessary medicine that will surely heal the wound. And though The Kid with the Bike doesn’t deviate so much from the brothers naturalistic style, it does employ a much brighter aesthetic than usual as this was meant to add a sort of fairytale like quality to the film. If the brothers hadn’t already established themselves as the most accomplished, high-achieving filmmakers of our time with their true grit poetic neorealism, with The Kid with a Bike they even give nod, not merely with the title of the film, to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian neorealist classic, The Bicycle Thieves.
And like De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike deals with family. However, while in Bicycle Thieves a young boy is introduced to life’s hard knocks through an imperfect father, in The Kid with a Bike the father (Jérémie Rénier returns for his fourth collaboration with the Dardenne brothers) is a deadbeat father who deserted his child whose brief appearances are saddening because it’s clear from the get-go a reconnection with his son is not going to happen. The fairytale aspect of the film doesn’t solely come from the bright aesthetic that I mentioned earlier but also acts as a dark fairytale through young Cyril’s story. Cyril spends the film wearing a variety of red tops, clearly representing our Riding Hood lost in the woods, and at a certain point he encounters our version of the Big Bad Wolf; a troubled youth who didn’t have the luxury of being cared for by a Samantha in his life like Cyril does. This Wolf is the counter to Samantha’s mother figure and Cyril is a broken soul caught in a world where he could walk down the dark path of the drug dealers and thieves or into the light that Samantha tries to open up to him. It’s a strikingly human story that keeps you on your toes and grasps your heart.
Much like the best known Dardenne films their camera just observes the events as they unfold before us. It’s as if the filmmakers have just happen to be passing through a Belgian town, and have stopped to record what’s going on. And perhaps for the same reason why films like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Ken Loach’s Kes are so rewarding Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike is that they analyze the psychology of youth through an unbiased, nonjudgmental camera lens allowing for the young actors to express themselves naturally and honestly. Right around the time of the films festival run I distinctively remember reading one review that wished that the character of Cyril was “more exploited” in that they believed there wasn’t enough presented to the audience. The same ‘critic’ went on to say they wished that the Dardenne brothers would have told us what was Cyril’s childhood and education was like. I don’t think there’s a specific requisite for any of this in a film, let alone in one by the Dardenne brothers. The lack of information about the character(s) turns their history more interesting and all the happenings (regardless of scale/scope) in their life greater and more potent for the audience.