Life on Earth: The Films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

By Wood, Robin | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Life on Earth: The Films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne


Wood, Robin, Artforum International


THE ARRIVAL OF L'Enfant (The Child), the fourth in a series of closely related feature films from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, offers a welcome opportunity to consider--and indeed celebrate--the Belgian brothers' achievements to date. Their films are intimately interconnected, both stylistically and thematically, to the extent that there have been hostile murmurings that the Dardennes have not made four films but the same film four times. This is totally unjust: In certain respects, it is true, the films are variations on a set of themes; but the cumulative effect is that each becomes the richer for this, even the most superficial cross-referencing only serving to bring out their diversity.

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The source, no doubt, of many similarities among their films, the Dardennes' production setup is in certain respects unique. Before their international breakthrough in 1996 with La Promesse (The Promise), they had made a number of documentaries and two fiction films (none of which is currently available). They formed their own company, Les Films du Fleuve, in 1994, and they have collaborated on every aspect of filmmaking ever since--the casting, the scripts, the rehearsals, the direction. They work with a resident cinematographer (Alain Marcoen) and editor (Marie-Helene Dozo), and sometimes with the same actors. Olivier Gourmet has appeared in all four films: He played the lead in Le Fits (The Son, 2002), a part conceived specially for him; had a major role in La Promesse; and took on supporting roles in Rosetta (1999) and L'Enfant. Jeremie Renier is the boy of La Promesse and the young man of L'Enfant, made nine years apart. The close relationship of actor to character is underlined occasionally by giving the character the actor's name. The Dardennes cast strictly for suitability, irrespective of the degree of professional experience. Their long-standing collaboration testifies to an exceptional degree of fraternal trust and harmony: It is especially difficult to picture any two people directing the same sequence without serious tensions developing.

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They make their films where they live, in Liege, often shooting in neighborhoods with which they are familiar. So far they have shown no interest in going beyond their own environment, though this scarcely seems a limitation: The themes and action of the films and the problems faced by their characters are common to any Western country and indeed to any society structured on class.

The Dardennes' early documentaries are not, as I said, available for viewing, but it would be surprising were there any extreme discontinuity between them and the fiction films, in which the feeling of documentary is pervasive--another aspect of the deep grammar generating the similarities perceived among the brothers' works. Shooting exclusively on location, using real buildings rather than studio sets (the carpentry school in Le Fils, for example), the Dardennes are consistently true to their roots. Somewhere in the background, perhaps, is the Italian Neorealist movement of the 1940s and '50s, which was likewise characterized by location shooting, attention to immediate social problems, frequent recourse to nonprofessional actors, and a sense of passionate engagement with contemporary living.

More intriguing to me are the connections between the Dardennes' films and those of Robert Bresson, who also preferred authentic settings to studio sets, but whose obsession with meticulously precise framing would have forbidden him to use a handheld camera to follow his characters around, a technique increasingly common in the Dardennes' work after La Promesse. The connections I have in mind are thematic and very far from a matter of simple imitation. Consider, for example, Bresson's Mouchette (1967) and the Dardennes' Rosetta, both the films and the characters whose names they take. Mouchette and Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) themselves have a lot in common: Both are teenagers, with no obvious attractions, generally unloved and unwanted, with nowhere left to go and little hope for the future. …

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