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 Promesse and 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?
LUC DARDENNE: We do a lot of work before we shoot. We do the casting ourselves. We scout locations for three to four months and, using a small DV camera, we figure out the camera movements, playing the characters ourselves. Then, one month before we start shooting, the actors arrive and we work with them on location using this small DV camera. Even once we’ve begun shooting, every morning we spend time working just with the actors — no technical crew. It could be one hour, two hours or even three. Once we feel we’ve found the rhythm of the scene, then we start shooting. One of us will always be with the actors and the camera, and the other one will be at the monitor. After a take, we’ll discuss things together at the monitor and then we’ll go again. There are no rules, but I would say we do between five and 25 takes of most scenes.
You also do a lot of very long takes, or “sequence shots,” in which the action unfolds continuously for as long as eight or nine minutes without one single cut.
LUC DARDENNE: What we like very much about these sequence shots is their rhythm and the way they create tension. When you have these long shots, you have to rehearse a lot for the actors and the crew, but there’s still always something different from take to take, and that creates even more tension, because the actors realize the camera isn’t exactly where it was when they rehearsed and so on. Another thing we’ve noticed is that when we shoot many takes of the same long scene, by the time we arrive at the 15th or 20th take, a certain fatigue will begin to appear in the actors’ faces and gestures that seems somehow more natural.
There’s an incredible speed to your films — they’re not action movies, per se, yet we move from one event to the next very quickly and every moment of screen time feels essential to the story.
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: We never thought they went as quickly as all that. We spend a lot of time in the editing room putting together the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film. But we have many long takes in our films and we very rarely cut any of them, except to trim from the beginning or end of the shot. And that is, I think, what begins to dictate the rhythm of the film. When we’re working, we don’t really have the rhythm of the film in our heads. We’ve always known what the rhythm of a shot should be, but we don’t think too much about the rhythm of the film until we get to the editing room. On The Son, for example, there’s a lot of variety to the rhythms of the shots, because until the end of shooting, we didn’t have a sense of the film’s rhythm.
LUC DARDENNE: The start of the editing is difficult for us, because we’re creating the continuity and, as in a thriller or a police drama, there are bits of information that shouldn’t be given. You have to remove them. It’s very good for creating tension in the audience.
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: In fact, we sometimes cut whole scenes to create ellipses in the narrative. So you may think that the storytelling is very constructed, but at the same time, we’d like to give the impression that it’s just been thrown together like so many stones thrown on the sidewalk.
All of your films fromJe Pense à Vouson have been set and shot in the industrial seaport city of Seraing. Why?
LUC DARDENNE: For us, it’s the town of our childhood and adolescence. It’s a city we knew when it was very prosperous, when there were lots of people who commuted by train to work in offices and factories. It was a mythical town in Belgium and other countries — people said, “When Seraing sneezes, Belgium catches a cold.” This was a time when the workers’ movement was so strong that any turbulence in Seraing had repercussions throughout the economy. Even as schoolchildren living in this environment, we felt solidarity with the workers. Then all of a sudden, in the 1960s and 1970s, the city collapsed due to the steel and oil crises. We saw families come apart, we saw people become less sociable, we saw immigrants arriving looking for places to sleep. We really saw the city becoming a desert. So our films went from telling collective stories to depicting people who were alone and following their own paths, with no members of the older generation to guide them.
You almost always study characters through their vocation or, in the case of Bruno in L’Enfant, a lack thereof.
LUC DARDENNE: The gestures and accessories of work are what we’re interested in, though in L’Enfant we felt that people were working less than in our other films. Of course, Bruno says that anyone who works is a loser, but he’s working too. The scene where Bruno is twisting the brace of the baby carriage in order to put it back together, people complained that it was too long. And we said that it was a tribute to the men and women of this region who work like that all day.
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: It’s true that the people in our films are always busy doing something. Working at something, never at rest. So, after having had them work so hard, we’ve never found it possible to let them die. At least their hard work will have served something.
Have you ever considered letting a character die?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: Yes, but we’ve never filmed those scenes. There’s enough death in real life that we don’t need to put it on films. It seems more interesting to find reasons to let our characters live rather than to have them die, which would mean the end of their stories. It would have been very simple and solved all of Bruno’s problems to have him die. But as filmmakers, we don’t want to think that we’re imprinting any of our characters with a life path. We like to let them live, and to follow them — it’s almost like a documentary that way.
Because there’s such a heightened realism to your films, it’s easy to forget how technically demanding some of the sequences must have been to shoot. I’m thinking particularly of the near-drowning sequences inRosettaandL’Enfant.
LUC DARDENNE: The camera, in both Rosetta and L’Enfant, always stayed on the shore, on firm ground. The crew would propose crane shots, or putting the camera in the water, etc. But no. It’s more important and a stronger experience for us to be on dry land and wondering whether Rosetta will make it back to that dry land. In L’Enfant, there were three to four meters of water, and by the bottom it was absolutely black from the debris from the factories — pieces of steel, broken glass, crude oil, all sorts of hazards. For safety, there were three frogmen just under the surface, and the two actors had very lightweight wetsuits to keep them from the extreme cold, but those wetsuits also made them buoyant, so the job of the frogmen became to feel for one of the actor’s legs and then to pull them down into the water. The camera just moved along this metal landing strip that was attached to the shore — that was the simplest solution for us. And there are no cuts in that scene. It’s all one shot.
There are also some 23 babies credited with appearing in the film.
LUC DARDENNE: Yes. And there was a dummy baby that came from London, called Jimmy Crash. We did the dangerous scenes with him, and he was very well-behaved. It’s funny: We would be loading up the equipment and we would just throw this dummy into the back of the truck, and people passing in the street would stop and say, “What are you doing? Stop that!” And they wouldn’t believe it was a dummy until they touched it themselves, so his face was always covered with dirty fingerprints. Poor Jimmy Crash!
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Given that you work with many first-time or nonprofessional actors, like Déborah François, who plays Bruno’s wife, Sonia, in L’Enfant, how important is the casting process for you?
LUC DARDENNE: Casting is primary. In the case of L’Enfant, we saw 150 candidates for the role of the younger boy, Steve, and close to 300 for the role of Sonia. We then narrowed that down to a top five or six, with whom we did workshops, not of actual scenes from the film, but variations on those scenes, so that by the time we chose Déborah, we had already played out almost every situation that was to appear in the final story. For example, we would spend half a day with a candidate for the role of Sonia just practicing fainting. We wouldn’t tell her the circumstances under which she would faint during the film; we’d just tell her to faint, so that we could see how she falls. Something else that’s very important for us is the selection of the costumes. As soon as we’ve finished with the casting, the actors will go with a costume designer to a costume warehouse, and that helps the actor to inhabit the role. Whether actors are professionals or non-professionals, they come to work having read the script and having developed a certain concept of what the character is about. Our aim is to break that down and have them begin again. As soon as we see, in one of these costuming sessions, that an actor or an actress wants absolutely to have a certain accessory or article of clothing, we almost always refuse, because it’s about their conception of the character and not ours. Even if it’s just underwear or socks.
Despite their intensely local focus, your films have now reached a large international audience. What do you credit that with?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: After Je Pense à Vous, many people told us we should stop making movies in Seraing — that it wasn’t of interest to anyone. And yet we were always persuaded that we could tell stories that would interest people in the States and in Europe, based on this place. Because this place seemed to us a generator of stories important to tell, and that if these stories were well told, then they could have a universal appeal.