Simple Life

08.04.08

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, La Promesse, 1996, still from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Igor (Jérémie Renier).


“ONE THING IS CERTAIN: small budget and simplicity everywhere.” When Luc Dardenne articulated these twin principles—curiously, as though they were one—in his diary in 1992, did he have any idea they would guide him and his brother, Jean-Pierre, so surely into the upper realms of cinematic achievement? Several Cannes victories later, the Belgian duo—the subject of a mini-retrospective that begins at New York’s Anthology Film Archives on Thursday—are responsible for some of the screen’s most disarmingly resonant portraits of modern Europe. And they haven’t availed themselves of much more than a handheld camera, a pocketful of virtually unknown actors, and a single Belgian town.

The skies over Seraing, the postindustrial heap the filmmakers hail from and film in, are gray. That gray seems to seep down through the city’s dull buildings and into the frigid, inert river Meuse. Against this drab backdrop and a concomitant atmosphere of moral indifference, the Dardennes etch minimalist narratives of the urban underclass that are infused with tension and urgency. The characters, acted naturalistically, sink in. The scenarios, free of the overblown drama so often found in the similarly stripped-down Scandinavian Dogme 95 films, never feel exploitative or unreal. And yet they become captivating.

In La Promesse (1996), a teenager struggles to help an African immigrant whose husband has died in an accident; in Rosetta (1999), a girl tries to hold a steady job and keep her mother from sinking into complete dissolution. A carpenter mentors the boy who killed his son in The Son (2002), and The Child (2005) tracks the wanderings of a young hoodlum who sells his baby.

The critic J. Hoberman has described the cinema of the Dardennes as “spiritually infused social realism.” The brothers, who started out making documentaries, have a detective’s eye for authenticity. Look closely, and you’ll notice that Olivier Gourmet’s woodshop instructor in The Son has a blood blister on his left thumb. Their movies look raw and modern, but there’s a classical rigor at work in them: The Dardennes film scenes at different paces before deciding which feels right, and if they don’t detect the “life force” in a scene, Jean-Pierre has said, they reshoot it—often in another location.

The ghost of Rossellini lives in their frames—also, Bresson. The actors in these films don’t seem like they’re acting, and the dialogue is minimal. The Dardennes are known for honing body language more than delivery. And while they like to foreground the human face—especially in tight, over-the-shoulder close-ups—they have pretty much staked their career on the assumption that the camera can’t get into someone’s head. In Luc’s words: “We film what we can see. This starts you thinking.”

Thinking about economic injustice, among other things. The Dardennes deliver memorable images of life on the brink—as when Rosetta, wrestling with her alcoholic mother near their trailer, falls into a muddy sinkhole. She flounders, cries out, then drags herself out of the slime alone, gasping desperately. You can almost hear the filmmakers crying out: How can a civilized country tolerate anything so abject? Seraing is not so much postindustrial as postapocalyptic: Bruno, the protagonist of L’Enfant, spends money as if it will be useless the next day; Igor, in La Promesse, and Rosetta bury their meager possessions in the ground. Most of the characters occupy not livable neighborhoods but dead zones of cement, mud, and barbed wire.

Tragic conditions like these, the films posit, breed almost unfathomable apathy. When his girlfriend confronts him about selling their child, Bruno says: “We’ll make another one.” But even if he isn’t aware of it, his panting and scheming are leading him toward a redemption of sorts. On the one hand, the abrupt, ambiguous conclusions of the Dardennes’ films are a snub to the Frank Capra ending. Marginal types in particular, these endings say, move their lives ahead on their own—certainly the watchful eye of a couple of high-minded filmmakers doesn’t budge them. Maybe some divine force does? Beautifully, the lingering threat of violence that pervades The Son is most vividly expressed on a plank of plywood, by a red stain that almost seems to have appeared there by accident.

Ultimately, the Dardenne brothers’ films are not about their austerity—a default aesthetic, after all, for many a penniless filmmaker—but their richness. Simplicity can be a complicated proposition. Even, potentially, a heroic one.

Darrell Hartman

“Swimming Upstream: Films of the Dardenne Brothers” plays at Anthology Film Archives August 7–10, 2008.