For two decades, the Belgian brother filmmakers have explored moral, social, and spiritual themes in one extraordinary film after another.
Two Days, One Night (2014), the latest acclaimed drama from the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, recently debuted on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion; it is also available via Netflix and Amazon Instant. Marion Cotillard’s best actress nomination in the last Academy Awards was the first occasion many Americans had to hear of the Dardennes, despite a celebrated career spanning two decades. More Americans, and American Catholics in particular, should be familiar with their work.
The Dardennes are among a small handful of filmmakers who have twice won the Cannes Film Festival’s top award, the Palme d’Or, as well as its second prize, the Grand Prix. (The Academy has yet to nominate any of their films for best foreign film.) In 2011 the Dardennes received the Robert Bresson Prize, an honor sponsored by the Holy See—specifically the Pontifical Councils for Culture and for Social Communications—and awarded at the Venice Film Festival to filmmakers whose work attests to the search for spiritual meaning in human life.
Named for the great French Catholic filmmaker Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest; Pickpocket), the Bresson Prize is especially appropriate in light of various affinities between the Dardennes’ work and Bresson’s.
Like Bresson, the Dardennes create films defined as much by what they omit as what they show, both narratively and visually. Their films begin in medias res, without explanation, and viewers must pay active attention to piece together whatever they can. Anything unnecessary is omitted; the Dardennes prefer action to dialogue, and nearly all their films, like most of Bresson’s, have no soundtrack music.
The Dardennes are former documentarians, and their films have a spontaneous, naturalistic feel belying their rigorously controlled creative process. Like Bresson, they generally work with unknowns or nonprofessional actors, though the leads in their breakout film La Promesse—Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet, both now successful actors—appear in many of their films, and recently they have become increasingly open to working with stars, most prominently Cotillard.
Both Bresson and the Dardennes are concerned with hard social and economic realities, but also with questions of morality and meaning in the lives of individuals. The Dardennes’ films all revolve around their hometown of Seraing in the province of Liège, a post-industrial steel town in decline (“a little Detroit,” Luc called it in an interview).
Their leading characters are lower class or at best working class; some are unemployed or criminals. The value of work and money is never the most important thing, but it is always important. Two Days, One Night revolves around the heroine’s employment status, until suddenly it doesn’t.
Likewise, The Son (2002) can be described as a story of forgiveness, but it’s about carpentry as much as anything. Carpentry, in the story of The Son, may recall the occupation of St. Joseph and Jesus, evoking various other Gospel associations, but it’s also a plain, practical trade that has shaped the protagonist (Gourmet) and offers a second chance to a young apprentice.
Like Bresson, the Dardennes avoid character psychology and explaining choices and actions in terms of motivation. What people do matters more than why they do it; why they act can be opaque and mysterious, often to the characters themselves, and even to the filmmakers.
Leaving character motivations opaque is important for more than one reason. It prevents us from reducing the mystery of other people to explanations or influences. In particular, it leaves the door open to the mystery of unexpected generosity and selflessness—to what could be called the mystery of grace.
Unlike Bresson, the Dardennes are not religious, having rebelled against their strict Catholic upbringing in their teenage years. Still, they credit their religious education with helping to form the moral and personalist worldview they bring to their films. Their films generally have redemptive arcs of some sort, or at least the hope of redemption—though there are no traditional happy endings, only hopeful new beginnings. Theologians ponder the mystery of evil; the Dardennes are intrigued by the mystery of goodness.
The mystery of goodness is strikingly revealed in the way the Dardennes’ noblest protagonists—Olivier in The Son and especially Samantha in The Kid With a Bike (2011)—are unable to explain why they have chosen to open their lives, in a way that seems almost superhumanly generous, to a young character who is adrift. “No one would do this,” Olivier’s ex-wife protests, and he agrees. He can’t explain it. (The Dardennes say they can’t either.)
Two Days, One Night is unique in the Dardennes’ films in offering an explicitly religious motivation for a character’s selfless moral choice. “It is what God tells me to do,” says Alphonse, an African immigrant to whom Cotillard’s character Sandra has appealed for help. “I have to help my neighbor.”
Significantly, Alphonse, in addition to being a minority, is a minor character—one of 16 coworkers who must all choose between self-interest and solidarity in voting for their own annual bonuses or for Sandra’s job. The Dardennes’ method of social commentary makes it very unlikely that an important decision by a major character would be given an explicitly religious motivation.
Yet Alphonse’s faith-based decision turns out to be pivotal. He is the deciding vote; he is also in the most vulnerable position and has the most to lose. In the end, his dilemma is mirrored in an unexpected way at the climax as Sandra is put in a position strikingly similar to Alphonse’s—and his decision paves the way for hers.
If you are new to the Dardennes, you could start with Two Days, One Night—but as an introduction my top pick would be The Kid With a Bike, their most accessible and optimistic film, about a young boy abandoned by his father who winds up caught between a loving surrogate mother and a devious alternate father figure.
After Kid and Two Days, try La Promesse (1996)—a harsher, more complex tale about a 15-year-old tough named Igor (Renier) educated in criminal ways by his father (Gourmet), a slumlord who traffics in illegal immigrants. La Promesse is intriguing, among other things, for its protagonist’s prolonged internal struggle and for the use of West African religious beliefs and divination practices to evoke a sense of spiritual awareness.
The Son is one of the Dardennes’ richest films, but also possibly the most demanding formally, with the least dialogue or plot and the most hiddenness. The Child, or L’Enfant (2005), has a more straightforward narrative, but its redemptive arc is less definite. Their grimmest, most difficult films are Rosetta (1999), about a 17-year-old trailer park resident desperately trying to find and keep a job while caring for her alcoholic mother, and Lorna’s Silence (2008), about a young woman who, like Igor in La Promesse, has an awakening of conscience amid criminal activities, but whose story takes a far less hopeful trajectory—one that offers a haunting image of something like damnation.
Having watched all of the Dardennes’ films more than once, I’m grateful for them all, even the grimmer ones. Very few filmmakers explore social or moral issues with so much clarity and insight, let alone so consistently and hauntingly. Watching the Dardennes’ films has changed the way I look at the world and at my neighbor; it has even made me resolve to be a better person.
The Dardennes’ films are generally mature viewing. The Kid With a Bike is suitable for thoughtful teens; so is The Son—if they’re willing to stay with it.