Smaller Than Life
The films of the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are triumphs of treatment over substance. The brothers, former documentarians, work in an ostentatiously verité style: no music, no gloss, no overt melodrama. All of their films, which deal with the working class of contemporary Belgium, are shot with handheld cameras, pressed close against the actors, frequently catching them at oblique angles; we observe their hair and their chins as much as their eyes.
The incredibly narrow visual focus—nary an establishing shot or a wide-angle lens to be seen—is meant to mimic the circumscribed lives of the protagonists. Trapped, clinging to the bottom rung, they can only look one step forward; their morality is trumped by their need to stay afloat. Although there is no overt ideology in these films, they invite both Marxist and Christian readings: the characters are clearly the product of a dehumanizing capitalism, and the journey of the films is always the re-discovery of the soul; redemption for the loss of humanity that a cutthroat society has engendered.
What these films do best is immerse us in the shape and texture of the life onscreen. In their best film (and first Palme D’Or winner), Rosetta (1999), the camera never once leaves the ferociously struggling heroine. We’re with her in her most intimate, painful moments, and also in her most mundane; observing in detail the basic tasks she needs to perform in order to survive. The activities are stretched into long, wordless scenes, not to show off realism but to get the audience to feel for themselves the physical and psychic toll they take. It’s only after the film is over that you may wonder why, exactly Rosetta, was such a dry, humorous lump, and why she could always be guaranteed to act in the most idiotic, self-destructive way.
There’s a schematism at play in these movies, and worse, a vaguely condescending take on subjects the filmmakers obviously have tremendous empathy for; it’s one thing to say that capitalism dehumanizes you, but does it also leech you of all personality? This problem was more persistent in their second Palme D’Or winner, L’Enfant (2005; released in US theatres earlier this year).
Faced with a more overtly contrived plot than Rosetta, the factitiousness of the brothers’ approach became apparent. Beneath the veneer of grittiness, there is a squishy sentimentality that, were it in a glossy Hollywood movie, I imagine many of the critics who faun over the Dardenne brothers would condemn outright. There is something very easy and pre-ordained about the hero’s path to redemption in L’Enfant. He remains so opaque and unspecific—and the social forces that shape him remain so unexplained—that ultimately the saving of his soul doesn’t seem to cost much.
In between these two films came The Son (2002). Akin to In the Bedroom, remade by Robert Bresson, The Son is about a carpenter, Olivier (Olivier Gourmet, who has appeared in all four of the Dardennes’ films), who works at a rehab center where wayward young men can turn their lives around. He accepts as one of his apprentices Francis (Morgan Marinne), a 16-year-old just paroled from prison. Although gruff and barely articulate, Olivier seems to have a strange obsession with Francis. He follows him around town and makes tentative overtures of friendship toward him. Is he infatuated with him? Is Francis his long-lost son? About a third of the way through the movie, the truth is revealed: Francis killed Olivier’s young son.
This “twist” forces us to re-evaluate everything that came before and to see everything that comes after in a new light: the same ambiguous gestures and protracted silences that had perplexed us earlier now suddenly become charged with meaning. At its best, the Dardennes’ form of experiential cinema forces the audience to play an active role in interpreting the film. The camera focuses on the back of Oliver Gourmet’s neck more often than his face, inviting us to fill in the multitude of conflicting thoughts that must be racing through his head. The brothers can photograph an idea—such as the possibility of a revenge killing—without ever articulating it in or dialogue or action.
When Olivier’s ex-wife discovers what’s going on (it’s of course implied that their marriage couldn’t survive the loss of their only child), she’s apoplectic. How can Olivier befriend the boy who killed their son? The movie is not so trite as to suggest that Francis becomes a surrogate. Rather, Olivier’s feelings remain equal parts vengeance, compassion, and wonder. At times, he seems to delight in subtly tormenting Francis. At others, he tries to reach out to the boy, clearly the damaged product of a bad economy and worse home life. And sometimes he seems stupefied by the mere fact of the boy’s existence while his own son is dead (the Dardennes are masters of off-screen noise and there’s a beautiful moment when Olivier simply listens to Francis urinating and whistling in the bathroom).
The entire push-pull of their relationship is enacted through mise-en-scéne and subtext. Dialogue is strictly perfunctory. Most of the time we simply observe the two of them at work, as Olivier teaches Francis the carpentry trade; we follow Olivier as he drives around town, endures tense meetings with his ex, goes out to eat, or sits alone in his barren apartment. Sometimes, the camera melts away and we feel as if we are living and breathing along with him. Other times, we are simply bored.
This kind of relentless naturalism turns life into a monotonous, gray sludge. The characters feel like paralyzed specimens on a microscope, bled dry of any vestiges of humor, quirkiness or spontaneity. The boys who work with Olivier at the rehab center are the most docile, obedient group of juvenile delinquents caught on film. They are actually less articulate than people in real life. And despite the undercurrent of grief in the film, Olivier and Francis both remain thin, shadowy conceits; after an hour or so, we run out of subtext to fill in, and the long, plodding silences continue. The Dardenne brothers are such conscientious filmmakers, but sometimes their style has the effect of making life seem smaller, simpler and less interesting than it really is.
Taken as a whole, there’s something incredibly mechanical about the Dardennes’ oeuvre. Every film is centered on a central contrivance, beyond which they look, feel, and sound exactly the same. The same camera movements, actors, locations, narrative concerns, rhythms, endings—a tense chase followed by uneasy “redemption”. If redemption was as punctual in real life as it is in a Dardenne movie, life might be a lot easier.
Extras: The New Yorker Films DVD features two extensive and very revealing interviews, the first with the directors, the second with star Gourmet. Together, these provide a good insight into how the film was conceived, developed and shot. They also confirm just how tightly rehearsed and choreographed the seemingly “off the cuff” naturalism really is.