My last day in Toronto was exceptional. Not only was I able to see the two remaining documentaries in the Dardenne series, but James Quandt and his colleagues graciously screened me the Dardennes’ first two features prior to La Promesse (1996). (The Cinematheque will publicly screen the features later this month.) The Cinematheque’s staffers logged 35 hours creating the subtitles for the documentaries, which ultimately only sold a few dozen tickets. By contrast, the Cinematheque’s screening of L’Enfant today, which opens commercially in Toronto next week, sold out. Quandt mused, “The program that takes the greatest effort, money, and time–and the rarest material–will always draw the smallest crowds. Oh well, there is that thing called ‘film culture,’ which we are determined to contribute to.” They’re heroes, I tell you.
Lessons From a University on the Fly (1981) is a quintet of short interviews with Belgian immigrants from communist Poland. The Dardennes have said one of the reasons they made documentaries was to gather people together and build communities of workers, immigrants, and activists. This series, which begins with the same historical summary of Soviet expansion into Budapest, Prague, Kabul, and Warsaw, is named after the “flying universities” of Poland (late-19th century underground education networks) resumed in the late-’70s just prior to the Solidarity movement. Immigrants reveal their names, point to a map showing where they lived in Poland, describe their trade, and trace the routes they took to Belgium. The Dardennes highlight the work of farmer and peasant unions, teachers, and families in a straightforward, unembellished manner: one whole segment features a family’s spontaneous critiques of a Warsaw propaganda broadcast emanating from a radio on their kitchen table.
Girish and I were surprised by the formal stylization of the first three documentaries in this series given the Dardennes’ current penchant for stripped-down realism, but nothing prepared me for Look at Jonathan (1983), which highlights the work of dissident playwright Jean Louvet through highly impressionist montages (a lone boxer, moving trains, dancing feet) and Brechtian restagings of his work (dramatic readings, minimalist sets, and snippets of text). The Dardennes interview Louvet, who co-founded the Proletarian Theatre of La LouviËre after the Belgian worker demonstrations of 1960, and the playwright’s stream-of-conscious reflections on his craft combined with the Dardennes’ visual experimentation make for a very dense and heady experience. (One of their sets of a worker’s camp, in fact, anticipates Von Trier’s visual aesthetic in Dogville, the Dardennes’ abandoned train tracks and sporadic fire pits within a dark, theatrical arena evokes the same merging of exterior and interior space.)
Look at Jonathan strongly anticipates the Dardennes’ first dramatic feature, Falsch (1987), in its minimalist milieu and theatrical lighting. “We aim to explore a form,” the Dardennes explained, “a style that rediscovers the cinema while being faced with the text of a play; and to rediscover this text through framing, glances, montage, the play of the actors, and the relationship to a place that is somewhere between a set and the realistic reference.” The film, based on a play by RenÈ Kalisky, is staged in a Purgatory-like deserted airport, where the Jewish members of the Falsch family–once living in Berlin–are reunited after death and must then confront their varied responses to Nazi Germany in 1937. The central character of the ensemble, Joe, fell in love and moved to New York. His brothers also fled and worked as entertainers; his parents stayed in Berlin and eventually died in a concentration camp; other relatives moved to Israel after the war. The Falsch’s reunion in the afterlife sparks a volatile examination of the ethical and emotional costs of their decisions, offering a microcosmic examination of postwar Jewish life. The film is shot in a highly artificial vein (strong colored lighting, posed tableaux vivants) and includes an eclectic array of music ranging from pop synth to Al Jolson to Arnold Schoenberg. It’s an intense psychodrama that, surprisingly, echoes Alain Resnais in its abstracted evocation of memory and identity.
The Dardennes were less pleased with their next feature, Je pense à vous (You’re On My Mind, 1992), in many ways a much more conventional film, but one that nevertheless emerges directly from their personal experience. “The script itself, the choice of actors, set, film crew, none of these things were our decisions,” the Dardennes have said. “Not that these decisions were made by others and imposed on us, but things were happening without us saying yes or no. . . . So this film was made, not against us, but without us.” Like a dramatic compendium of their documentary work, the film tells the story of a steel worker in Seraing who loses his job when factories close, and who begins a morose descent into despair and feelings of inadequacy that seriously threaten his marriage and family. Without having seen the Dardennes’ non-fiction features, one would probably never guess they had a hand in this melodramatic tale with lyrical music, crane shots, and emotionally manipulative dramaturgy. But in the context of their documentaries, many elements resurface as a dramatic whole (abandoned factories beside the Meuse, worker negotiations, the Binche carnival), and a few key sequences foreshadow the handheld urgency of the Dardennes’ later works.