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When La Promesse, the story of a father and son involved in a human-trafficking operation, made a splash in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 1996, few noted that the film’s directors, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, had been steadily working in cinema for more than two decades. There was hardly time to think about such things, so stunning was La Promesseand its account of blood ties at odds with moral responsibility. It was the sort of film that reminds you why these things are called moving pictures, flying across the screen with spellbinding narrative economy and an unwavering commitment to storytelling through action. Indeed, the characters in a Dardenne film are constantly in motion, either on foot or on motorbike; dialogue is employed as sparingly as a precious natural resource. And as much as the Dardennes have been compared to Robert Bresson for their speed and efficiency, it may also be that, in previous lives, they were contract directors at Warner Bros. in the 1940s.
The Belgian brothers did not set out to become filmmakers: Jean-Pierre, the elder by three years, aspired to be an actor, while Luc studied philosophy. But in the early 1970s, while still in their 20s, they were commissioned by the Belgian government to make a video on working-class housing developments, after which they formed a documentary-production company from which they produced and/or directed some 60 nonfiction films and videos. That work has been little-seen internationally, and the same goes for the Dardennes’ debut narrative feature, Falsch (1987), a touching film on the subject of survivor guilt, based on René Kalisky’s neo-Brechtian play. Five years later, Je Pense à Vous (1992) found the brothers working with more characteristic subject matter — a factory closure and its impact on the lives of a working-class couple. But in execution, that film was everything the Dardennes would soon come to reject — a conventional melodrama made in the “tradition of quality,” with beautiful sun-drenched vistas and a relentlessly uplifting musical score.
Not just the Dardennes’ breakthrough, La Promesse was also a case of artistic reinvention. The artifice of those earlier works had been sacrificed in favor of neo-realism, with handheld cameras positioned just a few inches from the faces of actors who were, for the most part, first-timers or complete nonprofessionals. Rosetta followed in 1999, with the unforgettable Émilie Dequenne as the eponymous factory worker who loses her job and begins a spiral into near-madness, at one point clinging to a sack of flour in a roadside waffle stand as though it were a vital organ. Then, in The Son (2002), the brothers hit upon a quandary worthy of Dostoyevsky: A carpentry teacher discovers that a student in another class is the young man responsible for the death of his son, then goes out of his way to take the murderer under his wing. And now there is L’Enfant(The Child), a devastating study in greed and its ramifications, in which an aimless street hustler named Bruno (Jérémie Renier) sells his newborn son on the black market, only to suffer a belated crisis of conscience and attempt to reverse his devil’s bargain. It solidifies the Dardennes’ position as the contemporary cinema’s most empathic chroniclers of proletariat lives, and of moral dilemmas hardly unique to the working class.
I interviewed the Dardennes on three occasions, at the Cannes, Telluride and Toronto film festivals. What follows is excerpted from those conversations.
L.A. WEEKLY:You tend to refer to your first two narrative films, Falsch and Je Pense à Vous, as failures. What were some of the lessons you learned from those experiences?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: The first, I think, is that we’re self-taught filmmakers. We were video artists first, and people in the film industry always thought that video artists were ne’er-do-wells. So when we made Je Pense à Vous, we announced that we were now entering the film world. We weren’t going to be bulls in the china shop anymore. It was a big mistake. We were surrounded by people who were protecting that china, who were telling us what we should do to keep each piece intact, and we ended up saving the porcelain at the expense of the film. We were paralyzed with fear. And that was the greatest lesson: You should be afraid when you’re making a film, but the fright that you should have shouldn’t paralyze you. After that experience, we became people who were not only against the work that we did in that film, but against the whole film industry. That really took us to the place where we were when we made La Promesse, because we were working against the establishment. We decided to never again work with actors who were well-known or familiar to the audience. And instead of hiring a professional crew, we decided to work with our friends who we knew would be good people to work with. What we didn’t understand when we were making Je Pense à Vous is that when you’re making a film, everyone must share the same dream.
L.A. WEEKLY:Something that I think everyone wonders about in situations where there are two directors is: How exactly do you work together?
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