Dardenne brothers  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne (born April 21 1951 in Liège, Belgium) and his younger brother Luc Dardenne (born March 10, 1954 in Liège, Belgium) are a critically acclaimed Belgian filmmaking duo. They write, produce and direct their films together.

The Dardennes began making narrative and documentary films in the late 1970s, but they didn't come to international attention until their film Rosetta won the Palme d'Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.

The Dardennes often employ hand-held cameras and use available light; their films have no musical score or soundtrack.


Creators of intensely naturalistic films about lower class life in Belgium, brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have created a body of work since 1996 which places them clearly at the fore of contemporary Belgian cinema and among the world’s most critically respected filmmakers as well. With La promesse (The Promise) (1996), " Rosetta" (1999), Le fils (The Son) (2002), and L’Enfant (The Child) (2005), the Dardennes’ films are stark but modest portrayals of young people at the fringes of society – immigrants, the unemployed, the inhabitants of shelters. Both Rosetta and L’enfant were awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the only two Belgian films ever to earn the honor.

The Dardennes were born and raised in Seraing in Liege, the “French-speaking region of Belgium that provides the gritty, postindustrial landscape so omnipresent in many of their films.” Jean-Pierre (born in 1951) studied drama while Luc (born three years later) studied philosophy. In 1975 they established Derives, the production company that produced the roughly sixty documentary films they made before branching into feature films. The tone and subject matter of their documentaries reflect much of the same territory the brothers would revisit with their narrative films: Polish immigration, World War II resistance, a general strike in 1960 . Their first two feature films, however, are rarely seen today: Falsch (1987) and Je pense a vous (1992), which Luc would later describe as an “unfortunate adventure.”

The Dardennes archieved their first major success with La promesse (The Promise) in 1996. The film is the story of Roger, who operates a tenement that he rents out to immigrant workers with the help of his fifteen year old son Igor. When Hamidou, a laborer from Burkina Faso, dies (as a direct result of Roger’s unscrupulousness), Igor takes responsibility for Hamidou’s wife and baby. The film, in the words of one critic, “shows us the birth of a consciousness,” and its setting – a Western Europe full of entrepreneurs desperate to grab their share of a quickening economy, and foreign laborers even more desperate to taste a small piece of that – is both grim and hopeful. The opportunities the film presents may be more spiritual than material, but this is in keeping with the hardscrabble reality of the Dardennes’ films. In his review of La promesse Stanley Kauffmann noted that, “The Dardenne brothers… have confessed to a burden. They believe in hope. They insist that under the frenzy of our world, physical and moral, there is quiet.”

With Rosetta the Dardennes turned their focus to the burdens – philosophical, spiritual, psychological – of unemployment. Émilie Dequenne, who had never before acted in film and was awarded the Best Actress Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is the title character, a young woman living with her alcoholic mother in a trailer park. The film is about Rosetta’s search for purpose and to Rosetta purpose can only be found through work – she makes her way through Seraing’s fringes for the most menial of positions; she catches fish in the muddy, murky stream by her trailer park. Her goal is no greater than to be a cook at a waffle stand but “she hurries through [the film] as if she would crash through a brick wall in search of a job.” Ultimately it isn’t societal forces or a capitalist system that derails Rosetta but her own singular desire. “Rather than personify or dramatize social forces arrayed against her, this Darwinian study suggests that Rosetta's oppression is rooted as much in her internalization of dog-eat-dog capitalism as in her unpitying environment.” Rosetta was the first Belgian film ever to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, coming in ahead of films by David Lynch, Pedro Almodovar, Takeshi Kitano, and Raoul Ruiz. The film’s impact wasn’t only cinematic: a labor law designed to protect young workers like Rosetta was passed shortly after the film’s release. “’[I]t was pure chance,’ Jean-Pierre insists. ‘There was already a bill going through, and the minister took advantage of our award to call it the Rosetta Law. But we never intended to get laws changed.’ Luc adds: ‘Of course, we always hope our films will speak to people, disturb them, but we never hoped to change the world’.”

The practice of work is also central to Le fils (The Son), a deceptively complex movie about revenge and redemption. The film, like all of the Dardennes’, seems straightforward enough: Olivier, a carpenter (played by Olivier Gourmet, who, like Dequenne, earned an acting prize at Cannes), takes on a young man named Francis as an apprentice. Francis is newly released from juvenile detention, and Olivier slowly discovers that Francis played a part in the death of his son some years earlier. Francis is unaware of the connection he shares with Olivier, and the Dardennes’ use this asymmetrical relationship to investigate the ideas of forgiveness and vindication. “For all its quasi-documentary materialism, The Son is ultimately a Christian allegory of one man's inchoate desire to return good for evil.” In this way Le fils is something of a departure from the Dardennes’ earlier work: it’s not the sort of movie that gets labor legislation named after it. Olivier’s carpentry is observed with unstinting and careful detail; it is not a means for sustenence but a means for existence. “It is hardly surprising that the Dardennes put together their naturalist fable with such a fanatical, self-effacing sense of craft. They 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.”

Crimes and occupations again figure prominently in the Dardennes’ fourth film, L’Enfant (The Child), but this time the two are bound up in ways both expected and surprising. After a young woman named Sonia gives birth, she leaves the hospital and finds her apartment has been subletted. She finds Bruno, her equally young boyfriend, the baby’s father and a petty thief with no real understanding of fatherhood. He uses the baby as a prop in panhandling and to get a bed for a night in a shelter; he comes into a bit of money and uses it to buy an expensive jacket for Sonia – to match his own. Bruno then makes a decision that seems ghastly and sensational, but as handled by the Dardennes seems matter-of-fact and calm: he sells the baby. We follow Bruno and the child on an excruciatingly long bus trip to the city’s outskirts where he will rendezvous with his traffickers – who or what they are is left mostly unsaid. “Like the Dardennes’ close framing and tracking, their use of ambient light and sound, [the slow pacing is] a way of clinging to the character and feeling the moral weight of his actions, even when he does not. That’s why it’s possible to care about inept, thoughtless Bruno, and care deeply, when at last he, too, feels the gravity.” Of course it’s not possible for Bruno’s efforts to get the baby back not to have ramifications – for himself, for Sonia, for a young accomplice (in one classically "Dardenne" scene, we see Bruno’s accomplice, barely a teenager, plotting a crime in work overalls at his vocational school). As for Igor in Le fils, redemption for Bruno is as much a psychological act as a physical one. The film earned the Dardennes the Palme d'Or from Cannes, their second in seven years.

On their latest film, Le silence de Lorna (The Silence of Lorna), Luc Dardenne stated, "[It's] about a young woman who has every reason to be desperate and who continues to believe that everything is possible. A religious believer of sorts, even if God is dead [...] How can a woman who doesn’t believe in God believe everything is possible? Where does this crazy hope come from? She is strange, out-of-the-ordinary. A fictional character always swims against the tide."

"Because of her social situation she is ready to do things that we would not, because we have no need to," Luc Dardenne said in an interview with Socialist Review. "These situations happen to people like her perhaps more than to those living in material comfort. This leads her to have to accept or refuse the death of someone. Nothing can authorise her to do this. The spectator might think, 'Given her situation, we can understand'. But in this case no."<ref>Socialist Review "Reality Bites", December 2008</ref>

Mirroring the consistency of their setting, the Dardenne Brothers maintain a regular stable of collaborators (for all of their films the brothers share writing and directing credits), most notably cinematographer Alain Marcoen and editor Marie-Helene Dozo. Jeremie Renier played both Igor in La promesse and Bruno in L’Enfant, while Olivier Gourmet, the main character of Le fils, has a brief cameo as a detective in L’Enfant. Like Rosetta’s Emilie Dequenne, Deborah Francois, the seventeen year old lead in L’Enfant, was appearing in her first film. Luc Dardenne has described their process of working with actors as follows: “What we do with the actors is also very physical. The day filming begins we do not feel obliged to do things exactly the way they were rehearsed; we pretend that we are starting over from zero so that we can rediscover things that we did before. The instructions we give the actors are above all physical. We start working without the cameraman--just the actors and my brother and me. We walk them through the blocking, first one then the other, trying several different versions. They say but do not act their lines. We do not tell them what the tone of their lines should be; we just say that we will see once the camera is rolling. At this point there is no cameraman, no sound engineer, no lighting. Then we set up all the camera movements exactly and the rhythm of the shot, which is usually a long take. Doing it this way allows us the ability to modify the actors’ movements or any small details.”

See also

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