By Mike Dub
In the hands of the right filmmakers, adolescence provides fertile ground for exploring the conditions that shape society. Far from just the finite crises of finding acceptance, achieving arbitrary victories, beating up a bully, and losing one’s virginity, good films about adolescence not only reflect the problems of an adolescent’s world, but also bear witness to its intractability.
The adolescent in question in La Promesse is Igor (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier), an impoverished, pasty, ill-toothed youth who spends most of his time helping his father (the fantastic Olivier Gourmet) run a slum tenement for illegal immigrants. Igor, seemingly named with Dr. Frankenstein’s slavish assistant in mind, participates in the exploitation of the immigrants with the breezy nonchalance of an aged veteran – collecting rent, locking immigrants in their hovels at night, and negotiating prices on passports and work visas. However, he is also at the age where moral questions begin to arise, and he is assaulted with choices that are much larger than his age.
Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who have made several films examining youth, poverty and morality, approach La Promesse with an uncanny combination of narrative finesse and visual severity. The film exists almost entirely in the world inhabited by Igor and Roger, to the virtual exclusion of any outside world at all. Wealth, or even middle-class stability, are so excluded from these people that they are invisible. Handheld camera, location shooting, and a bleak grey palette provide a hard, grounded camouflage on what is essentially a coming-of-age family drama. Igor is confronted by similar conflicts to other adolescents – family versus individuality, security versus morality, reality versus ideology – but they are played out in an arena where the stakes are extremely high and the consequences are devastating.
The heart of the film, though, really comes from the lead performances. Renier, as the newly troubled young man, gives a quietly assured performance that, like his character, suggests maturity well beyond his years. It is rare for someone his age to avoid overacting, and it is a necessity here, playing a boy who suffers not only from indecision but incomprehension. And Gourmet is outstanding as the despicable but caring father, a balding, bespectacled schlub who exploits immigrants with workmanlike dispassion – he’s the epitome of quotidian self-preservation.
Like the Italian Neo-Realist filmmakers that influenced them, the Dardenne Brothers use adolescence to explore the social strife and moral breakdown of the industrialized West. They also shy away from hackneyed devices that would make their film more palatable: there are no easy conclusions, overt political messages, or adolescent narration (thank God). By keeping the story a tight family drama that remains firmly focused on the central characters, the film acknowledges that there are no easy answers. A moral decision by one adolescent will not save society. The best we can hope for is that he might save his own soul.