“Does one not, when coming out of an Italian film, feel better, an urge to change the order of things?” wrote the great movie critic André Bazin some 60 years ago, when the neorealism of Roberto Rossellini’s Open City and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves seemed a radical innovation. Vivid and ethically intense, neorealism embodied a postwar European humanism that tried to avoid moral and political clichés. Bazin was clear that such clichés were always lurking: “The scenarios of many Italian films are open to ridicule. Reduced to their plots, they are often just moralizing melodramas, but on the screen everybody in the film is overwhelmingly real. Nobody is reduced to the condition of an object or a symbol. … Events and people are never introduced in support of a social thesis.”
For us today, neorealism and its humanism seem antiques, but the problem remains of creating realistic films without falling into sentimentality, propaganda, complacency, or easy melodrama. Can there be a kind of critical realism that avoids both postmodern trickery and sensationalism—that both expresses and arouses “an urge to change the order of things”? The films of the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne suggest one way to do it.
In 1996, after 18 years of activist videos and films—six documentaries and one disastrously conventional fictional film that plunged them into debt and illness—the Dardenne brothers released The Promise to unexpectedly great acclaim. They had resolved to work only with unknown actors and a small technical crew and to function as their own producers, writers, and directors. The plot of The Promise was unfashionable, even unattractive, and difficult to describe—a moral conflict between two sleazy, lower-class Belgian criminals, a father and son. But The Promise became the first of six Dardenne films that, over the past 18 years, have won an unprecedented number of awards at Cannes (and other festivals) for best film, best actor, best actress, and best screenplay and have attracted international praise that is most unusual given the Dardennes’s principled rejection of conventional glamour, comfort, flattery, and the provocations of sex and violence as usual. Their narratives are extremely well constructed, and their actors—both the men (Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Fabrizio Rongione) and the women (Emilie Dequenne, Arta Dobroshi, Cécile de France)—are among the finest in contemporary cinema, but their films are profoundly idiosyncratic. They break your heart but reassemble the pieces in the most surprising ways.
All six films have been released and well reviewed in America: The Promise (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), The Child (2005), Lorna’s Silence (2008), and The Kid With a Bike (2011). Their characters are often unemployed or criminal Belgians (with a few illegals from Africa or Albania) living mostly in Seraing—a polluted postindustrial suburb of Liège with crisscrossing highways and steel-factory smokestacks along the Meuse River—scratching and scrambling through the ruins and along the margins of globalization and the welfare state. Four of the six films center on teenagers in extreme domestic peril and on the adults who support or exploit or betray them.
These people live in housing projects, campers, a flophouse, a center for juvenile delinquents, unfinished rooms in a house under perpetual construction, or a cardboard refrigerator box (that looks like a coffin) in a shack between the highway and the river.
Some have jobs—in a trade school, hairdressing salon, waffle stand, restaurant, dry cleaner’s, or gas station—but it turns out that the building contractor in The Promise is really smuggling illegal immigrants, renting them rooms, and turning them over to the police or selling them into prostitution (and burying one of them under concrete in the back yard). In The Child, the 20-something hustling for change at a stoplight also runs a street-snatch gang with two high school kids (and calmly sells his newborn baby). And in Lorna’s Silence, the taxicab driver operates an international scam using arranged marriages to get citizenship papers and overdoses a junkie whose recovery is getting in the way. All these characters spend an enormous amount of time counting and exchanging money, scrutinizing the bills, hiding them, or stuffing them into their cheap, flimsy clothes.
The Dardennes transform what might appear to be the sad or sordid banalities of the downtrodden in a way that prevents their assimilation into self-comforting clichés. For example, describing Rosetta, about a desperate, unemployed 17-year-old girl living in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother, Luc Dardenne writes in his published journals, “We were not trying to recount a story”—a conventional prefabricated form—“but to describe the action of someone whose entire being is obsessed with existing normally, with being part of society, with no longer being excluded, with not disappearing.” Describing The Son, about a reform school teacher torn between forgiveness and revenge when he takes on as a pupil his son’s teenage killer, Dardenne told The New York Times in 2003, “We wanted … to see … how you might be able to escape from vengeance, without being a saint, or to show that human beings might have the capacity to break the pattern of repeating the same murderous gestures.”
In a crucial moral and psychological distinction, Luc Dardenne differentiates empathetic realism from the realism of what he calls the “cynical conscience” that “accepts being separated from its ideals. That’s how it is! That’s reality! Under the pretext of realism, this [cynical] conscience resigns itself to its unhappiness, and because this arrangement cannot completely dissipate its awareness of unhappiness, it becomes arrogant, mean, full of contempt.”
To achieve empathetic realism the Dardennes violate the usual grammar of film (both the script and the visual style of establishing shots, reaction shots, etc.). Their visual style can be extreme: the characters are always in a rush, moving up and down stairs, in cars and buses, on mopeds and bikes, and their motion is usually frantic, desperate, vertiginous. The shots are frequently filmed by 16-millimeter hand-held cameras and framed tightly—looking over a shoulder and past the back of a head. We’re often stuffed like a child into the backseat of a car. We scrutinize people’s ears, necks, skin, straggly hair, eyes behind glasses. These close-ups convey the characters’ obsessive, enclosed consciousness, their disorientation or fear, and the Dardennes contrast these with long-distance shots of the indifferent city streets or the pinewoods.
The soundtracks are exceptionally clear and expressive (not merely atmospheric or illustrative): a screeching saw in a carpentry shop, a buzzing circling moped, cooking gas escaping from its tank, schoolyard shouts, cars and city noise, but also the wind in the trees and once even birdsong as Lorna proceeds on a delusive fairy-tale escape. There is almost no music—just a few minutes in dance halls and bars, an awkward, painful dance in a tiny kitchen, some depressive droning rock for the junkie, and in the only music not shown as part of the action on the screen, the slight whisper of the arietta of Beethoven’s last piano sonata at the very end of Lorna’s Silence and the grave, enfolding consolation of the slow movement of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto at four important points in The Kid With a Bike.
Throughout their films, several actions recur. At crucial moments a character, overwhelmed with feeling but unable to bear a face-to-face encounter, confesses a fatal crime or secret to the averted back of another. In every film, characters throw themselves at each other in scenes of violent wrestling (all frenzied except one instance of childish roughhouse) or clasp the other’s legs in supplication. The only sexual contact we see is the harrowing, naked, standing, weeping embrace of Lorna and the emaciated junkie, who look like a tortured Adam and Eve.
The natural world is usually dangerous. In The Child the river is the refuge for a thief and his 14-year-old accomplice, who suffers hypothermia and nearly drowns. In Rosetta the mother pushes Rosetta into a filthy mud-bottomed pond by their trailer park, and later Rosetta herself almost lets her sole friend and champion drown in it. Only once—in The Kid With a Bike—is the river positively portrayed as a site for a country excursion out of Jean Renoir or François Truffaut (sunlight through the leaves, geese along the shore, a bicycle ride and picnic for a boy and his foster mother). The only other natural element in these films is the forest, which is portrayed as a fairy-tale realm of fatal transformation or refuge.
For all their originality, it’s clear that these films have a place in the tradition of postwar movies that use children as vehicles of moral, social, and psychological interrogation: Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967). And in summaries, the Dardennes’ movies do sound melodramatic and sentimental, products of liberal humanism. The Dardennes themselves have evolved from left-wing Catholic schooling, through philosophy studies and actors’ training, through Belgian working-class leftist politics to the ethics of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, which is based on the compassionate acknowledgment of another person. Levinas admired the Holocaust poet Paul Celan’s remark “I don’t see a difference between a handshake and a poem.” Luc Dardenne declares, “I would like us to succeed in making a film that would be a handshake.”
This may be dismissed as liberal humanism, of course, but not so easily when one sees their films. The Dardennes are indeed the descendants of the neorealists, Bresson, and the French New Wave, but they are also original artists—aesthetically demanding and morally intense. Their films recall Kafka’s thought that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
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