dardenne brothers

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Unknown Girl”

The Unknown Girl (2017; Dir.: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, September 22, at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco.

The Dardenne Brothers, those Belgian purveyors of austerity and despair, have always been a tough sell for mainstream audiences.  Their films are so raw, so pure, so devoid of artifice and often so hopeless, it’s hard to explain how the act of watching them can be such an engrossing, white-knuckle experience.  Still, even the auteur geeks shrugged their shoulders at Luc and Jean-Pierre’s latest effort when it premiered sixteen months ago at Cannes, and for good reason – this disaffected, by-the-numbers effort feels more like the work of the filmmakers they influenced than the real McCoy.  Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a talented doctor who goes into a liberal guilt tailspin when an unidentified young woman denied late-night entry into the clinic winds up dead.  In an attempt to determine the dead woman’s identity, Jenny obsessively pursues the case, crossing one professional line after another while maintaining a strangely strict confidentiality policy.  All of the Dardenne Brothers elements are in place, including regulars Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier in key supporting roles, but the film never manages to build tension, and we don’t get emotionally involved in Jenny’s journey.  A sleepy lead performance from Haenel certainly doesn’t help, but the bigger problem is that much like the lead character in Lorna’s Silence, Jenny’s only defining trait is her kamikaze self-sacrifice. I’m sure there’s a Christian allegory that I’m missing here, but a blandly sturdy, stutter-stop drama is a blandly sturdy, stutter-stop drama in any denomination.


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 2 – “Rosetta”

images4Rosetta (1999; Dir.: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)


By Daniel Barnes

There persists an idea that the Dardenne brothers create aimlessly verisimilar films, but now that I’m five movies deep into their filmography (deep enough to create my first Dardenne Brothers Power Rankings), it’s clear that they shrewdly and meticulously structure their narratives, while retaining an electric and unpredictable authenticity from moment to moment. If their most recent release Two Days, One Night was “12 Angry Men meets the world economic crisis,” then their 1999 Palme d’Or winner Rosetta is Mouchette meets The Passion of the Christ, with the tortured Savior recast as a heroically stubborn, barely tolerable, and marginally employable teenage girl.

Off-the-grid poor and saddled with a useless alcoholic mother, Rosetta (Émelie Dequenne) enters the film like a wild animal, attacking the manager who furloughed her from her factory job, and grabbing at lockers and bathroom stalls while security officers try to drag her away. The camerawork is equally violent, clomping heavily through the forest with Rosetta as she visits her secret stashes and fishing lines, finally arriving at the campground where her mother barters sex for bottles. There are a number of intense physical confrontations in Rosetta, awkward grapples and flails that border on slapstick while holding onto an element of danger, and the Dardenne brothers and their cinematographer Alain Marcoen shoot them as though the camera were just another wrestler.  It may feel random and raw and unformed, but there is a keen sense of onscreen and off-screen sound and space in every long take.

imagesForced to weather-strip their drafty trailer with toilet paper and soothe her stomach pains with a hairdryer, Rosetta yearns for the security of employment, and begins hungrily eying a position at a local waffle stand. She schemes to befriend a dim-witted waffle stand employee named Riquet (the scene where they share dinner while listening to a tape of his drum practice is strangely funny and endearing), and when that proves to be a dead end, she considers more drastic and soul-deadening options. Rosetta is a study in contrasts – she has the angelic face of a young girl but the broken posture and heavy gait of an old washerwoman; she’s fiercely independent, but in a way that seems more resentful than proud; she wants the unemployment benefits for which she’s ineligible but refuses to collect her rightful welfare; basically, she’s internalized the cruelty and caprice of capitalism.

Like most (if not all) of the Dardenne brothers’ films, Rosetta examines the enormous burden of poverty, but especially the burden of going it alone. Rosetta lives in a world where empathy equals suicide, but it’s only when Rosetta expresses a need for empathy and assistance from someone else that she can possibly achieve grace. Dequenne does tour de force work as Rosetta, alternating between calculation and desperation and defeat, keeping a terse and thorny demeanor while giving us glimpses of the scared and exhausted teenager underneath. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same actress who played the relentlessly plucky hairdresser in Not My Type.  She matches the Dardenne brothers’ severity beat for beat, making Rosetta boldly unlikeable but admirably resourceful, so ferocious a survivor that it might just kill her.  Behind every one of Rosetta’s conniving maneuvers and savage outbursts lies an inherently human need to prove her worth, and an innocent belief that she can achieve her dreams, even if her only dream is to not “be left by the wayside.”

*The Dawn of the Dardenne Brothers Festival continues on Tuesday with Daniel’s review of The Son, and Daniel and Mike Dub will wrap up the festival and rank the films on Thursday. Check out Mike’s review of La Promesse HERE.

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.

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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.