ESFS Festivals


imagesBy Daniel Barnes and Mike Dub

DANIEL: As I’ve stated many times, the real purpose of these festivals is to fill in some of my more glaring cinematic blind spots. In my festival intro, I mentioned that “I came a little bit late to the Dardenne brothers party,” and up until a few years ago, I had only seen one of their films (The Child, still my favorite). Dub, after watching and reviewing the first three films by Belgian siblings Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, I would say that we’ve fully arrived at the Dardenne brothers party, and I gotta say…it’s not a particularly swinging affair. The “refreshments” are just week-old waffles, warm beers, and a bowl of loose prescription medication. Everyone refuses to take off their jackets, and the only music they have here is a cassette tape of some dude practicing the drums.  There are scooter chases in the living room, carpentry lessons in the kitchen, and most of the partygoers are playing a game called “God Hates You,” which seems to involve crawling into a corner and weeping until you fall asleep. But that’s the milieu of the Dardenne brothers – they create brutally realistic and pitilessly austere portraits of life on the economic margins, but with a vaguely Catholic mercy that makes the struggles of their characters feel both mundane and mythic.  Their harsh visual style – realistic lighting, long takes, handheld camera, etc. – probably stems in part from their background as documentarians.  How do you think that documentary experience manifested itself in their 1999 film Rosetta?

DUB: First of all, I would like to add that their party is also fucking freezing all the time – a barren, icy, never-ending winter of discontent.  Terrible party, indeed.  Yes, you can certainly see the influence of their documentary background, but they use the pseudo-documentary approach in a very specific and effective way, particularly in Rosetta (and to a slightly lesser degree, in The Son).  They have taken the hallmarks of documentary and fashioned a style that is very deliberate, calculated, and above all, artistic.  In Rosetta, stylistic austerity runs hand in hand with an artful dedication to exploring their heroine: there is barely a frame in which the title character is not visible, often at the (intentional) expense of narrative clarity.  It is the most rigorous of the films we watched, and the most difficult (particularly for someone like myself, who is easily motion-sickened), but it is also the most ambitious and the most rewarding.

images La Promesse and Rosetta were made back-to-back, and they feature main characters who are extremely different and yet occupy the same space: they are around the same age, they are both desperately poor, they both engage in huge moral decisions, they both lack one parent, and the parent they do have is substandard to say the least.  But they are also polar opposites: Igor is waffling, unsure, a well-trained soldier for his exploitative father.  Rosetta is furious, aggressive, and almost always acts with a clear and overwhelming sense of purpose.  Yet, they are equally naive, and equally unequipped to deal with their problems.  Dan, having seen all three films now, how do you see La Promesse fitting in with the others?

DANIEL: La Promesse feels like an early work, and you can sense that they’re trying stuff out that will pay greater dividends in Rosetta.  But it also shows them to be masters of building a tightly wound, ticking-clock story out of what seems like raw chaos.  The relationship between Jeremie Renier’s junior slumlord-in-training and an African immigrant in peril didn’t seem fully developed (or plausible) to me, and the film has much more success drawing out the complex relationship between Renier and his scumbag father played by Olivier Gourmet.  Speaking of Gourmet, one of the great delights of these festivals is the unexpected discovery.  Having already seen a few Dardenne brothers films going into the festival, I fully anticipated appreciating their raw but slyly constructed visual style, their noose-tight narratives, and their masterful touch in building offscreen sound and space.  But I had no idea that I would come out of this festival singing the praises of Gourmet, and comparing him to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti in my review of The Son. Gourmet has appeared in all of the seven features from the Dardenne brothers, but The Son is his only true starring role.  Dub, why do you think that the Dardenne brothers keep returning to Gourmet, and what do you think that he specifically contributes to The Son?

index2DUB:  In all three films, what Gourmet provides most abundantly is an anchor of seasoned professionalism.  Particularly in Rosetta and La Promesse, he is an extremely grounded force inside the chaos of handheld camera and young, unpolished actors.  This is not to say that the other actors are bad by any means, but Gourmet has an extremely rare gift of being both abjectly prosaic and entirely magnetic.

The Son may be the most “minor” of the three Dardenne films we watched, but the Dardenne brothers seem to know that it’s not as complex as their other movies, and they pull out every stylistic trick in order to create a stark and interesting character study.  The most impressive aesthetic component to The Son, though, is Gourmet’s brilliant lead performance.  He has built such an impressive partnership with the Dardenne brothers that he can create drama by the way he dries his hands in a bathroom, or by just sitting in a car and thinking.  Likewise, the Dardennes create the framework for his performance to flourish.  Having seen four of their films (these three and The Kid with a Bike), it seems that Gourmet and the Dardenne Brothers comprise one of the great unsung auteur-actor relationships in modern cinema.

imagesDANIEL: Well, it appears that most of the party guests have collapsed on the floor under the weight of their socioeconomic problems, only summoning strength enough to look back at us one last time, their tear-swelled eyes making a pleading call for empathy and assistance, so I think that’s our cue to skedaddle.  Stuff as many of these expired Xanax in your pockets as possible, and let’s rank and grade the movies and get the hell out of this urban cesspool known as Belgium.


1) Rosetta (A-)

2) La Promesse (B)

3) The Son (B)


1) Rosetta (A-)

2) La Promesse (B+)

3) The Son (B+)

Check out Daniel’s updated Dardenne Brothers Power Rankings HERE.

For our July festival, we’re veering south from Belgium to Turkey, where we will be watching and reviewing three films by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, yet another Palme d’Or-winning director.  That festival kicks off in 2 or 3 weeks, so check back here for dates and details.

ESFS Festival 10, Film 3 – “The Son”

indexThe Son (2002; Dir.: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)


By Daniel Barnes

In my festival intro, I mentioned that actor Jérémie Renier served as the Dardenne brothers’ “on-again, off-again muse,” a blonde-mopped personification of moral turpitude and financial desperation in modern-day Belgium. That argument still holds water, especially since the characters that Renier played in La Promesse, The Child, and The Kid with a Bike (and presumably Lorna’s Silence, I still haven’t seen it) seem like they could be different versions of the same person.  But for the purposes of this festival, I should have been talking about the importance of actor Olivier Gourmet.

The 51 year-old Gourmet, who figured prominently in all three films in this festival, has 99 TV and film credits listed on IMDB, but he became an in-demand actor largely due to his work with the Dardenne brothers, starting in 1996 with La Promesse.  Since then, Gourmet has appeared in every single feature made by the Dardenne brothers – most recently, he played the foreman who tries to get Marion Cotillard fired in Two Days, One Night, and he was the heartless waffle stand owner in Rosetta.  Mike Dub singled Gourmet out for praise in his review of La Promesse, calling his portrayal of a schluby single father/sleazy slum lord “the epitome of quotidian self-preservation.”  Gourmet plays another sad-sack schlub with questionable motives in The Son, but it’s a rare starring role for the career character actor, and a rare chance to display a sliver of human decency and tenderness.

imagesWhile working at a center for troubled boys, the typically taciturn but short-fused carpentry teacher Olivier takes an unusually patient and obsessive interest in one of his new pupils, a stone-faced minor recently let out on parole.  We soon learn that the boy was involved in the death of the teacher’s son, a connection that Olivier keeps secret from the boy.  As the two of them grow closer, though, Olivier prods the boy with questions in order to gauge his remorse levels…is Olivier out for rehabilitation, or revenge? Only the constantly eavesdropping camera has any clue (watch how often the camera follows a character’s eye line).  It all leads to a finale that should feel familiar to anyone who has followed along with the festival.

Even minor Dardenne is major cinema, but The Son is their least substantial work, and I placed it last in my updated Dardenne Brothers Power Rankings.  It has all of their usual intellectual rigor and stylistic and thematic hallmarks, but little of the narrative momentum of their best films.  Once the story elements fall into place at the end of the first act, there’s not much left to do but wait for the inevitable final confrontation between Olivier and the boy.  While the film is beautifully constructed and achingly raw, like an unfinished, handmade wooden box, the visual austerity felt a little more punishing and a little less electric this time.

But none of that diminishes a magnificent lead performance from Gourmet, who keeps finding new layers of mystery and confusion in this broken shell of a man.  Gourmet possesses a curious mixture of intensity, weakness, gravitas, and invisibility, operating sort of like a less bombastic Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman.  If the Gourmet of La Promesse was the banality of evil, and the Gourmet of Rosetta was the banality of power, then the Gourmet character of The Son is the banality of grief, a teetering man for whom salvation and self-destruction may be the exact same thing.

ESFS FESTIVAL #10, Film 1 – “La Promesse”

La_Promesse_posterLa Promesse (1996; Dir.: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)


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.

6a0168ea36d6b2970c017c331916bc970bBelgian 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.

La Promesse welfare glassesThe 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.

ESFS Festival #10 Preview – Dawn of the Dardenne Brothers

dardenne-brothersBy Daniel Barnes

I came a little bit late to the Dardenne Brothers party (by the way, this party has the worst refreshments ever – it’s just Diet Mountain Dew and a bowl of loose prescription medication). Their most recent release Two Days, One Night was one of my top 20 films of 2014, while star Marion Cotillard made my SFFCC Best Actress ballot, and I have already seen and loved their 2005 Palme d’Or winner The Child and 2011’s sublime The Kid with the Bike. However, more than half of their feature filmography remains in a glaring blind spot for me, one that I intend to fill in with this festival.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and his younger brother Luc started as prolific documentary filmmakers in the 1970s, but rose to prominence on the international cinema scene in 1996 with La Promesse (their first two narrative features, made in 1987 and 1992, have been all but wiped off the map, so La Promesse is often mistakenly credited as their debut film). Continuing in the documentary tradition, the Belgian-born Dardenne brothers eschew Steadicams and non-diegetic music in favor of handheld cameras, natural lighting, long shots, denim jackets, and unprofessional actors (Cotillard was their first “star” performance), and yet within that strenuous verisimilitude, they give a Biblical sort of weight to their characters’ moral dilemmas.

index index2 index3

The Dardenne brothers focus on people who live on the fringes of society, people easily lured or forced into lives of crime or subservience. They paint a brutal portrait of poverty in their films,  especially of the huge taxes that capitalism levies on the human soul. Cinematographer Alain Marcoen shot every one of their films, and editor Marie-Hélène Dozo worked on all but The Kid with the Bike, while actor Jérémie Renier has served as an on-again, off-again muse, appearing in four of their seven narrative features, starting as a teenager in La Promesse.

Mike Dub will kick off the festival on Wednesday with a review of La Promesse, and I will follow with reviews of Rosetta (on Monday, June 22) and The Son (on Friday, June 26), before we regroup on Monday, June 29, to recap the festival and rank the movies. If time allows, I’m also hoping to watch and review Lorna’s Silence, which seems to be the least regarded entry in their filmography. Grab a waffle and a warm beer and hop on your scooters for a handheld tracking shot through the mean streets of Belgium all month long, right here on E Street Film Society.

Festival #9 Wrap-Up/Awards

imagesBy Daniel Barnes and Mike Dub

DANIEL: First of all, Dub, I want to thank you for honoring my “no flats” policy for this festival wrap-up – I feel like the Palme d’Or calls for a little old-school glamour.  As I wrote in my review of When Father Was Away on Business, the Palme d’Or award is similar to the Oscar in that it has attained a phony prestige over the years, and the winners tend to have a whiff of “importance.”  Cannes juries favor small-scale human dramas over genre pictures, and the films that win usually take place against a sprawling cultural canvas or a significant sociopolitical moment (side note: on the surface, at least, the 2015 Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, about Sri Lankan immigrants living in the Paris suburbs, fits this template).

“A sprawling cultural canvas” is actually a pretty apt summation of Paris, Texas, German director Wim Wenders’ romantic and slightly askew notion of the lonely American West of 1984.  One of the things that struck me the most in Paris, Texas was the idea of the road as a lifeline – Travis (a haunted Harry Dean Stanton) starts in the desert with no memories and no voice, but his senses come back the more that he connects with the highway.  It’s like a blood vein, and even an escape into the hills of the L.A. suburbs comes with a view of the artery, and the incessant sound of its roaring heart. What did you think of this outsider’s vision of Americana?


Well, I agree that it was slightly askew, in Wenders’ sometimes-brilliant (the German doctor in Mexico) and sometimes-not (Aurore Clement’s distractingly bad English) style of European playfulness.  But Wenders is a very good filmmaker, and in Paris, Texas, he creates a wonderful visual framework for both distinguishing himself from and building upon his favorite westerns – The Searchers is the reference point that immediately comes to mind.  However, it’s also tough for Wenders to successfully stretch his reverence for American sentimentality.  The first half hour of the movie is brilliant and mesmerizing, but once the father-son reunion forms the center of the film, it becomes much less vital.  Like its main character, the further from the desert the film gets, the more conventional it becomes (save for the scenes in the peep show, which you mentioned in your review), and the more it turns into something that has a road laid out for it.

indexPerhaps that’s why I liked Ballad of Narayama so much.  Although it was based on a novel that had already been filmed, Imamura’s version feels more like an attack than an homage, wrought with ugly depictions of sex, family, society, and tradition.  I have not seen the first version, but I know that about half of what we see in Imamura’s version could not have been shown in any film in 1958.  The Cannes crowd, in addition to enjoying “sprawling cultural canvasses,” also loves to feel validated by films that borrow from and build on the history of cinema.  How do you feel Narayama compares with the other films from our festival?

DANIEL: I think that Narayama is most similar to the other two films in the festival in that it examines a very specific time and place, entering an often overlooked culture while keeping the focus on its basic human drama.  As you mentioned in your review, the framework of Narayama is not so far off from indigestible Hollywood treacle like Stepmom or My Life – a woman heroically prepares her extended family for life after her impending death – but the details of the pre-industrial, highly superstitious mountain village in which she exists give the story depth and flavor.  Aside from a few dated 1980’s camera tricks, The Ballad of Narayama makes us feel as though we’ve been deposited into an extinct world that we never knew existed.  If there is an outlier in this bunch, I think that it’s When Father Was Away On Business, which is the most explicitly topical film of the three films in our festival.  Although it’s set in Sarajevo 1950, the film’s depiction of ordinary life in a dehumanizing totalitarian regime was highly relevant to audiences of 1985…what, if anything, do you think that is has to say to us now?

imagesDUB: If there is one theme that both the Cannes jury and the Academy Awards love to love, it’s movies that depict life under tyranny.  The same year that When Father Was Away won the Palme d’Or, it was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, losing out to The Official Story, another semi-biographical period piece about life under a terrible dictatorship.  You can understand why juries are so quick to reward relevant political works – if we were to ever lose faith in the cinema’s power to shape our culture, then the art form itself would function as little more than, as Gene Siskel’s wife once remarked, “an excuse to eat candy in the dark.”  There is a bit of symbiosis to films like When Father Was Away and the awards they receive.  They validate each other.

That being said, there is no question that of the three films we watched for this festival, When Father Was Away was the least stylistically interesting.  It is practically void of a visual personality, and relies on the somewhat grating narration of a six year old child to bring the audience up to speed.  Personally, it has always been a turn-off for me when we see important historical events through the fuzzy and ignorant perspectives of children.  Still, the content is interesting enough to avoid succumbing to truly nauseating crap like Life Is Beautiful, which was such a charmer in 1998 that it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and, of course, Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.


1) Paris, Texas (B+)

2) The Ballad of Narayama (B+)

3) When Father Was Away on Business (B)


1) The Ballad of Narayama (A-)

2) Paris, Texas (B+)

3) When Father Was Away on Business (B)


*The glorious Palme d’Or goes to… The Ballad of Narayama.

*The so-so Grand Prix goes to… Paris, Texas.

*The shameful Un Certain Regard goes to… When Father Was Away on Business.

For our June festival, we’ll be staying on the Palme d’Or theme by covering three films bythe Belgian sibling team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, two-time winners of the Cannes top prize.  Over the course of three weeks, we will be watching and reviewing their first 3 feature films – La Promesse (currently available on Hulu Plus), 1999 Palme d’Or winner Rosetta, and The Son.  If you would like to receive updates on upcoming festivals, follow us on Facebook, and follow Daniel Barnes on Twitter.

Fin…or is it?

ESFS Festival #9, Film 3 – “When Father Was Away on Business”

index2When Father Was Away on Business (1985; Dir.: Emir Kusturica)


By Daniel Barnes

If you look at the recent history of the Cannes Film Festival, it’s pretty clear that for all of their emphasis on unique cinematic voices, there is a certain type of film that tends to win the Palme d’Or. Cannes is infinitely more auteur-driven than the Academy Awards, but like the Oscar, the Palme d’Or has become imbued with a phony prestige over the years. You can’t just give the Palme fucking d’Or to something frivolous like Shrek 2 (which played in competition at the 2004 festival), you need to give it to something “important,” which is why genre winners like Pulp Fiction and All That Jazz are extremely rare.

index1Cannes juries tend to favor small-scale human dramas played out against either a large cultural canvas or a significant sociopolitical moment. If you look at the Palme d’Or winners from 2000 to present, almost every single film fits that description – Dancer in the Dark, Uncle Boonmee…, The Tree of Life in the former category, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, 4 Months…, The White Ribbon, The Pianist in the latter, Elephant and The Child a little of each – and so do all three of the films in this festival. The Ballad of Narayama and Paris, Texas painted their simple family dynamics onto that large cultural canvas, but Emir Kusturica’s 1985 winner When Father Was Away on Business falls into the other category, setting its coming-of-age story in the significant sociopolitical moment of Sarajevo 1950.

images3When Father… takes place shortly after socialist Yugoslavian dictator Tito split with Stalin and Communist Russia, and the plot hinges on concepts of infidelity, authoritarianism, and dehumanization, but Kusturica’s sardonic twist is to tell the film through the eyes of a small child. The “Father” of the title is a mustachioed, hairnet-wearing cad and “fun Dad” whose extramarital affairs are an open secret, but who gets punished with “voluntary work in that mine” after his mistress repeats a harmless comment about a political cartoon to a party official.  After his imprisonment, the father is sent to a shitwater burg to be “reconstructed,” but he gets by – they have booze and whores there, too. Meanwhile, the boy pines for a real leather football, while the wife bottles her rage and acts “as if nothing happened.”

images4Kusturica’s film has a much drabber palette than the lush natural tones of Narayama or the pop-art colors of Paris, Texas, but the graininess fits this world of black market peddlers and banal paranoia. Poor is poor here – even the home of the puffed-up party official is devoid of simple comforts, beyond a spare pistol and a self-righteous superiority.  It’s not particularly dynamic, but I liked Kusturica’s compact camera moves and bleary sense of ephemeral whimsy.  Things threaten to get a little too twinkly-eyed at times, especially in regards to the boy’s penchant for sleepwalking, but Kusturica generally keeps things grounded and recognizable.

There’s a bawdy boisterousness to the film’s depiction of a dictatorial bureaucracy that recalls the Polish films of Milos Forman, especially his 1967 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Firemen’s Ball.  When Father… would be pitch-black if it wasn’t so humane, and a lot of the humor is gently cutting in a Forman-esque fashion, such as in the highlight scene where the boy thwarts his parents’ attempt at a conjugal visit.  As it turns out, Forman chaired the 1985 Cannes jury that bestowed the award on When Father…, so maybe all you need to win the Palme d’Or is a little bit of luck.