Dignity and Physical Drama in the Films of John-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

A majority of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films have appeared on Image’s Arts & Faith Top 100 Films. In fact, the 2010 edition featured an impressive five of their films (Le Fils at number 5, L’Enfant at number 27, La Promesse at number 44, Lorna’s Silence at number 67, and Rosetta at number 82). That the 2011 list included fewer of their films was the result of “a new rule limiting directors to three films,” but regardless of the year or protocol, any given Dardenne brothers film is a worthy choice for a list that blogger Steven D. Greydanus describes as “an expression of… ongoing discussions about how mystery and meaning can be discerned in works of art.” For a current assessment of the brothers that also encapsulates their entire career, Marjorie Baumgarten of Monterey County Weekly declares, “how the Dardennes, time and again, turn gritty, mundane subjects into transcendent moments of honesty and truth is one of the great cinematic wonders.”

The critical reception of the brothers’ work is overwhelming and possibly misdirecting. Over and over, critics ascribe an otherworldly understanding of grace to the filmmakers, whose stark aesthetic might be puzzling to uninitiated viewers that expect radiant films to match the lofty language of the reviews. While I understand the temptation to overstate what’s going on in this singularly mysterious filmography, I also think it’s worthwhile to plumb the mystery. What is the peculiar spiritual gravity of the Dardenne brothers’ films? What makes them so great as to be praised? The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray editions of La Promesse and Rosetta provide an occasion to examine the Dardennes’ ethical and moral outlook.

Criterion has included a revelatory, feature-length interview with the brothers, conducted by critic Scott Foundas and divided across the two discs. We learn that the characters of La Promesse and their other films are based on individuals the brothers met while making social issue documentaries. These are people that have been pushed to the margins of society — specifically, the jobless and homeless inhabitants of the brothers’ hometown of Seraing, where their fictions are also set. Desperation threatens the characters’ daily routines, often expressed as means of survival in the plots of the films.

To hear the brothers tell it, breakthrough La Promesse represented a cinematic rebirth, a chance to be born again as fiction filmmakers after the failure of their first attempt (1992’s little-seen Je pense à vous). All of these expository strands help to define the Dardenne perspective. The documentary realism, the filmmakers’ all-or-nothing attempt to rescue a fading film career, and especially the desperate circumstances of their characters create an aesthetic climate of “war,” which the brothers describe as a cinematic war against “French quality”. This declaration of war includes a production process that could be called radical compared to that of most fiction filmmaking: The brothers eliminate all unnecessary equipment, commit to shooting in sequence, and determine their schedule without the presence or input of producers.

The risk of such an approach paid off with La Promesse, which is the first of several maturation plots within their filmography. Jérémie Renier is Igor, a teenager marked from his first appearance as needing moral guidance. When we first meet him, he’s stealing money from an elderly lady and disguising his crime beneath gestures of hard work and good nature. An apprentice for a mechanic, Igor actually does have a few options for succeeding in life, but his dishonest father guides him away from the straight and narrow. Olivier Gourmet is Roger, the father, and he insists that Igor see him as a friend/partner in crime rather than a dad. Roger earns his money as a slumlord, exploiting undocumented immigrants and taking their passports in exchange for residence permits and barely passable living conditions. This dysfunctional relationship is part of the Dardenne’s societal critique, as they explain in the interview with Foundas. They link the economic decline of the 1970s with subsequent moral decay, including the absence of upstanding fathers and role models.

The link between family, economy and morality is just as explicit in Rosetta, an even bleaker drama about the limited options available to the lower economic class. In Rosetta, a mother-daughter relationship plays out as a state of war. The title character (Émilie Dequenne) lives with her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux) in a small trailer and tries with all her might to get a job as a means of saving her mother and escaping a life of poverty. Like Igor, Rosetta has no stabilizing force in her life, so her irrational behavior makes her sympathetic rather than unlikable — a distinction that is necessary in order to appreciate the dramatic circumstances of the film.

Rosetta (1999)

The close physical alignment between audience and character is one of the Dardenne brothers’ extraordinary signatures. Capturing even smallest and most routine physical habits of Roger and Igor as they roam the building collecting money, or Rosetta as she habitually disappears into the woods to fish from a lake and exchange her shoes for a secret, buried pair of boots, the brothers achieve a cinematographic attachment to their characters’ bodies. The effects of this technique are twofold. Firstly, characters like Igor and Rosetta and those in their immediate surroundings define society’s “least of these”. They represent the class of people from which most would look away or pretend didn’t exist. By putting the camera uncomfortably close to their characters, the Dardennes remove the option to ignore their plight. It’s no coincidence that the brothers are well-versed in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, for whom the face-to-face encounter was the foundation of ethical engagement.

Secondly, while the filmmakers push the boundaries of what looks like observational documentary cinema, they do so in creating works of fiction. The amalgam of forms is commendable, because such a bold aesthetic would be considered obtrusive in observational non-fiction. That the brothers choose this aesthetic to create fictional tales of disenfranchisement allows them to get even closer to the characters and issues without risking the ethical pitfall of interventionism or exploitation. Thus, they go a long way toward solving the predictable shortcomings of social advocacy documentaries, which often fail to produce positive results on behalf of their subjects.

Another major component of the Dardennes’ style flows from these formal properties. Though their singular filmography defies traditional categorization, there is a seemingly unrelated genre that might provide a clue for further unlocking the mystery of their cinematic worldview. Specifically, the physicality of La Promesse and Rosetta is on par with physical comedy and its attention to the body in crisis. In “What People Laugh At”, an article written for American magazine in 1918, Charlie Chaplin discusses the connection between the troubled body, economic status and human dignity. Chaplin writes, “Placed in an embarrassing and ridiculous situation . . . the human being provokes other humans to laughter.” However, he’s careful to acknowledge the class distinction upon which such comedy depends: The “stout, dignified, well-dressed woman” on whom Chaplin spills his ice cream moves an audience to laugh because they enjoy “seeing the rich get the worst of things.” Conversely, he guesses that if he had “dropped the ice cream, for example, on a scrub-woman’s neck, instead of getting laughs, sympathy would have been aroused for the woman.” For Chaplin, humans are only fodder for comedy when they’re dignified enough to weather the embarrassment. Characters that lack dignity deserve more respect.

Thus, understanding Chaplin’s standards for his physical comedy, we could identify the equally important role of dignity in the storytelling of the Dardenne brothers and their “physical drama”. Their close physical identification with the characters is only the starting point for heart-wrenching emotional journeys, most of which involve seeking edification, forgiveness, and above all, dignity. Young Igor’s turning point occurs when one of Roger’s tenants/workers falls from scaffolding and dies. The man, Hamidou, says his final words to Igor: “My wife . . . my child. Look after them. Say you will.” Igor responds, “I promise.” Igor spends the rest of the film attempting to live up to this promise, despite Roger’s dehumanizing presence.

Under his father’s influence, Igor first drags Hamidou and hides him away from the eyes of building inspectors, just as he earlier hid a stolen wallet and as his father hid dirty money. Characters in the Dardennes’ films are forever hiding and burying their secrets. When Roger covers Hamidou with boards, and then later buries his body beneath trash and debris, Igor cannot comply. The act of promising has planted a seed of dignity, and the audience becomes deeply invested in seeing it take root. Igor’s subsequent trials with Hamidou’s wife and infant offer him the potential for redemption, but only if he keeps his promise.

When we meet Rosetta, she seems too far gone for any sort of redemption that involves loving others or being loved. Her economic and emotional isolation have marginalized her and reduced any ambitions she might have had to a single goal: to get a job. As in much of the Dardennes’ filmography, exposition isn’t important. We meet Rosetta in the here and now. In their interview with Foundas, the brothers say that for Rosetta, to not find work is a “death sentence”. So her struggle for dignity is arguably even more consequential than Igor’s, and the events of the film play out accordingly. Rosetta’s scenes with her mother are unbearably sad. She fights for her mother’s lost honor as forcefully as she refuses charity and literally grabs on to her work when threatened with being replaced. Her small victories (getting a job at a waffle stand and becoming friendly with a boy that works there) are fleeting bright spots that she recites out loud before bed in an attempt to convince herself of self-worth: “Your name is Rosetta, you found a job, you made a friend, you have a normal life, you won’t be left by the wayside, good night.”

For the viewer invested in Rosetta’s pursuit of dignity, each setback is devastating. The Dardennes, politically concerned but never predictably so, recall their leftist friends’ reactions to the character, as they criticized the filmmakers for creating a character that so desperately wanted to find work. Such critics misunderstood the point of the film. Rosetta is not a film that makes work synonymous with life. It is, rather a film that treats seriously the ambitions and spirit of one of society’s most overlooked individuals, lest she be left by the wayside.

Above all, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne seem to be concerned with the innate dignity of human lives. Their films are pro-life in the most expansive, least politically divisive sense of the phrase. To use another counterpoint, if we look to the part of the cinematic spectrum most remote from the Dardennes’ work, we find blockbuster films that serve up set pieces and chaotic action that treat death as a sport. The July 2012 tragedy at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado could be interpreted as the latest horrific result of the tendency to portray bodies on film as disposable things. Plenty of everyday moviegoers (me included) enjoy the spectacle of big-budget action films. But to a troubled and irrational mind, the expendability of bodies on screen might deaden or erase compassion for the living. More than anything else, the “mystery and meaning” of La Promesse and Rosetta are found in the way they expose the more routine sort of devaluation of individuals at society’s margins. These films are vital for the way in which they inoculate an audience from the ever present threat of desensitization.

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