The Dardenne brothers
The Dardenne brothers are a Belgian filmmaker duo whose film and documentary career has spanned over forty years. After making documentaries in the 1970s about their small town of Liège, Belgium, they concentrated their attention on film, keeping a loyalty to documentary-style realism with film such as La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002) and L’Enfant (2005). Both Rosetta and L’Enfant won the jury’s grand prize of Palme d’Or at Cannes, putting the brothers in an elite club of six other filmmakers which include Francis Ford Coppola and Emir Kusturica. Yet, the international attention on the duo has remained incredibly quiet. So here’s what you need to know about the pair.
The brothers grew up in Liège, Belgium, which inspired their near-constant use of gritty, post-industrial landscapes.
Jean-Pierre studied art at university and Luc studied philosophy.
They shot their first documentary Le chant du rossignol in 1978, which was about the resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War in Belgium.
After meeting filmmaker Armad Gatti and cinematographer Ned Burgess, they decided to enter in the movie business, achieving recognition with their third film, La Promesse.
The duo base their films around the marginalized underclass, using a naturalistic technique not dissimilar to the Dogme ’95 movement.
The Dardenne brothers use meticulous, handheld camerawork to convey authenticity and a raw naturalness. None of the films have a soundtrack or any extra-diegetic music, and dramatic moments have to rely on dialogue alone to evoke an audience reaction.
Their highly selective framing blends with physically intense acting to evoke a realistic tradition. Characters are always touching each-other; in L’Enfant, Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François) are always shoving, biting and play fighting, conveying their relationship more realistically than any staged conversation.
The long shots are always attributed to character or even landscape study. Of Le Silence de Lorna, where Albanian immigrant Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is embroiled in a fake marriage to junkie Claudy (Renier), Luc said: ‘We wanted to watch Lorna, watch Lorna, watch Lorna…that is why the camera is further out than usual and moves much less.’
An entry from Luc Dardenne’s diary in 1992 pretty much sums up the brothers’ attitude to film making:
Long discussion with Jean-Pierre about the way we will continue to make films. One thing is certain: small budget and simplicity everywhere (story, décor, costumes, lighting, crew, actors.
Their simplicity has extended to cast and crew, with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne employing familiar faces for many of their films. A favourite is Jérémie Renier, who has appeared as the leading role in three of the brothers’ films, and much of the crew is kept the same, such as long time editor Marie-Hélène Dozo. The brothers put this phenomenon down to the bonds they have formed on set, saying, “when you have friends, you like to meet up with them again to chat and catch up.”
They have managed a curious paradox of art house – lengthy shots where not much is happening, long silences – with high suspense; car chases and extreme situations. L’Enfant details a young petty thief who sells his girlfriend’s baby for cash, Le Fils is about a carpenter who knowingly takes on the murderer of his son as an apprentice, and La Promesse concerns itself with a young boy who cares for an immigrant woman and her baby after she is widowed. Despite these almost unrealistic situations, the style of the brothers’ film making – slow to illuminate – ensure that every premise is believable.
The brothers resolutely deny any socialist conscience, but the hardships that their working or underclass characters face invariably creates indignation in the viewer, and a desire to see change. When making their films, the Dardenne brothers use anonymous lives that feel significant. They take those on the margins – the petty thief, the immigrant – and propel them to the surface, forcing us to examine what is so often glossed over by the media.
By working on the characters as if they are portraits, they do not try and represent the entirety of a type of people, but simply illustrate the life of one woman, one man. They are dogged in creating as neutral a base as possible, at pains not to invoke either hostility or pity for their characters. Instead, through a perfectly unbiased eye they present the facts in as impartial a light as possible, creating an empty space where we can decide for ourselves what we feel.
They work on the premise that the less interpretation bestowed on their films by them, the more the audience will choose to interact and question the meaning of the film. When a reporter asked Luc Dardenne if the river in L’Enfant was symbolic of Bruno’s desire for movement, he simply replied, “the reason we chose to work with the [river] Meuse was because of a scene when the stroller would be washed.”
Despite their pragmatic approach, the films have inspired change in France and Belgium. Rosetta told the story of a young woman living with her alcoholic mother in a trailer park. To Rosetta reason can only be found in work, yet her simple desire to own a waffle stand is eluded and she is forced to catch fish in the muddy stream by her trailer park. In Belgium the film inspired a new law prohibiting employers from paying teen workers less than the minimum wage: called ‘The Rosetta law.’
The brothers have expressed the hope for their films thus:
“We hope that we’re able to find something that’s going to allow the character to make his or her way out and find her own humanity.”
To view any of the Dardenne features; L’Enfant, La Promesse, Le Silence de Lorna, is to discover not only a hidden humanity in the sometimes morally reprehensible characters, but also a subsequent shift in your own conception of humanity and ethics. They may not be particularly big or flashy, but a Dardenne film will quietly change your life.