By 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.
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?
DUB: 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.
DANIEL: 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.