Interview with the Dardennes

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The latest issue of Paste magazine is in print, so look for it on newsstands. It contains a shortened version of my interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, which I’m posting in full here. –Doug

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The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne received their second best picture award at the Cannes Film Festival last year for writing and directing The Child (L’Enfant), a repeat honor bestowed upon only a handful of filmmakers. But their lean and focused works have barely graced US screens.

For the last fifteen years the Dardennes have captivated international audiences with dramas highlighting the ethical conundrums of working class life: La Promesse (1996) details the troubled relationship between an adolescent and his father who traffics undocumented workers; Rosetta (1999) conveys the obsessive lengths to which a teenaged girl demands a job, a home, and a normal life; The Son (2002) suggests the way a carpenter’s enigmatic thoughts revolve around the devastating act of a young apprentice. These films are available on video, even if the filmmakers’ early documentaries and features are not, inspiring career retrospectives of their work in London, Toronto, and other cities this year.

The Dardennes’ rigorously handheld camerawork and selective framing merge with physically intense acting to evoke a cinematic tradition of realism infused with philosophical and spiritual depth; they’ve cited Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) as their model film, and critics have compared The Child to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959).

Despite being at the forefront of world cinema, the Dardennes are disarmingly soft-spoken and relaxed in person. I’m chatting with them at the Toronto International Film Festival about The Child and their creative process.

“Every morning that we shoot,” Jean-Pierre says, “we rehearse on location with the actors. We don’t rehearse the dialogue, only the movements and rhythm. And we decide where we’re going to place the camera; often it’s dependent on how the actors have moved and where they’ve stopped. We need to see this happening in front of us in order to plan it.”

Their quasi-documentary style also recalls Denmark’s Dogme 95 movement, but the Dardennes’ approach predates it: Long discussion with Jean-Pierre about the way we will continue to make films, reads an entry from 1992 in Luc’s recently published diary. One thing is certain: small budget and simplicity everywhere (story, décor, costumes, lighting, crew, actors).

The premise of The Child fits the mold. Like most Dardenne films, itís set in their industrial hometown of Seraing. A 20-year-old hoodlum named Bruno (Jérémie Renier) attempts to live with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François), and their newborn child, Jimmy. But Bruno is emotionally ill-equipped to be a father and attempts to sell his child on the black market; the film details the havoc that ensues.

“We like filming actors’ bodies,” Luc observes, emphasizing the way people walk and move and conduct their trades rather than deliver dramatic soliloquies. Bruno and Sonia physically wrestle with one another, expressing myriad emotions: love, playfulness, anger, defensiveness. François shines in her performance, at times projecting warmth and compassion but fluidly switching to ferocity.

The Dardennes appreciate the value of mystery in art and conversation, and seem more comfortable elucidating their methods than their meanings. I ask them about the repeated imagery of the Meuse river in The Child–perhaps it reflects Bruno’s desire for movement or transformation? “That’s something you might see in it,” Luc answers, “but that’s not how we worked. If I remember correctly, the reason we chose to work with the Meuse was because of a scene when the stroller would be washed, which we ultimately cut.” Yet after describing their pragmatic series of decisions, he tentatively concedes, “You could see the river as being life or birth.”

It’s not that the Dardennes dismiss interpretation; they simply know that less explanation can be more meaningful to viewers who will engage and absorb on their own. It’s an approach with artistic precedent–let the work speak for itself–but also one closely linked to the writings of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), a major inspiration to the filmmakers. (Luc studied philosophy; Jean-Pierre studied drama.) Levinas stressed face-to-face encounters; at first unknowable and autonomous–even threatening–the Other compels response.

In The Child, Bruno comes face-to-face with his son, someone he initially regards as a potential source of income. The Dardennes convey the father/son disharmony in the way Bruno physically interacts with his child. “In the very first scene, when Sonia comes with the child to introduce him, Bruno doesn’t even pick up the child, but answers the phone,” Jean-Pierre says. “Later,” Luc continues, “he holds the baby against his chest so he doesn’t have to look at him. During one of our takes, when Jérémie looked at the child, there was an emotional build-up, and we decided no, it can’t be.”

Since the Dardennes are co-directors, they’ve also developed a method one might call ‘face-to-face’ production. “One of us stays on the set with the actors and technicians and the other brother goes behind the video monitor,” Jean-Pierre explains. “Once we’ve done the first take, we both review the monitor because there might need to be changes based on what we’ve seen, and then maybe one or two scenes later we’ll switch roles. Because our takes are quite long, and there is a lot of movement within each scene, the guy behind the monitor may see the rhythm better than the guy on the set–but maybe not the acting.”

This accounts for the astonishing immediacy of a Dardenne film. The visible tension of the filmmaker in close proximity to the actor is recorded directly by the camera. Luc elaborates, “If it is possible, one of us has to stay on the set, because it adds tension. It’s important for the actors. They know that you’re there watching. They work under your gaze. If there’s a strong trust with the actors, then it’s very important for them to have you physically there.”

Active cinephiles themselves, the Dardennes cite F.W. Murnau’s classic Sunrise (1927) as an inspiration for The Child. “It’s the story of a man who wants to murder his wife, so they go off on a boat together, but he decides not to kill her and spares her. And we thought that it was indeed possible, based on that movie, to have a long segment in the film that deals with Sonia and Bruno coming back together.”

Indeed, while The Child shares many elements of the Dardenne universe–work as an expression of life, personal disconnection, ethical dilemmas–its characters seem warmer. “The film is more tender,” Jean-Pierre notes, “maybe like water moving. It has quite supple or mobile characters, more like membranes, unlike Rosetta or The Son, which had characters with armor. We wanted the characters in The Child to ‘vibrate’ more. Maybe because we shot so many scenes close to the water it helped. Bruno is a bit like an insect darting here and there. He lives very much in the present without thinking of the future. And yet the child requires a lot: responsibility, protecting, caring for another human being.”

Fortunately, The Child will be distributed in US theaters in March, offering moviegoers the chance to encounter the Dardennes’ unique and profoundly moving methods for themselves.

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