When Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne started shooting La promesse in 1995, they had an opportunity available to very few filmmakers: to begin again.
Having established themselves as documentary filmmakers in the tiny, close-knit community of Belgian cinema, the brothers had already taken a first, abortive leap into fiction in 1987, with Falsch, an adaptation of René Kalisky’s play about a family of Holocaust survivors reuniting at a German airport, followed five years later by Je pense à vous, the story of a Seraing steelworker who loses his job. But while Je pense à vous edged closer to the milieu they have since become known for, its production took them further from the way they wanted to actually make films.
“We didn’t know where to put the camera, so an actor would say, ‘Why not put it here?’ and the director of photography would say, ‘Why not over there?’ and then the assistant director would bring in his point of view,” Luc Dardenne told critic Geoff Andrew in a 2005 interview. “So this film was made, not against us, but without us . . . I think we became frightened by cinema.” The process of understanding this fear would eventually lead to the articulation of an alternative approach to moviemaking. “Long discussion with Jean-Pierre about how we’re going to continue making our films after the negative experience of Je pense à vous,” begins a June 1991 entry in Luc’s diary, included in his 2005 book Au dos de nos images, 1991–2005. “One thing is certain: small budget and overall simplicity (story, locations, costumes, lighting, crew, actors).” “We said two things to each other,” Jean-Pierre told Andrew, in reference to the period before La promesse. “First, cinema is not obligatory; there are a lot of things one can do in life. If it doesn’t work for us this time, we’ll just find other things to do . . . Second, we told each other we had to find again the joy and freedom we had when we worked on documentaries, when it was just we two.”
Those first documentaries were made under the sign of the French-Italian left-wing theater and film director Armand Gatti, onetime collaborator of Alain Resnais’ and Chris Marker’s, who taught at the drama school where Jean-Pierre was studying. Gatti incorporated videotaped pieces into his theatrical productions, which inspired the brothers to buy their own camera and create filmed portraits of their fellow citizens in Seraing. “A lot of these workers’ estates have no communal space,” Luc explained to Andrew. “There’s no place for people to talk to each other. So we decided that we would go and film these people and tell their stories, perhaps of moments in their lives where they came up against some injustice.” This commitment to local working-class life (all of their homegrown films—except for 2008’s Lorna’s Silence, which takes place in Liège—are set in the former industrial powerhouse of Seraing), to portraiture, and to describing the passage from isolation to community has remained central to their work.
The Dardennes’ failure to adapt to industry norms during the making of Je pense à vous led not to floundering but to refinement, not to wondering why they weren’t good at a kind of filmmaking they had never wanted to practice in the first place but to deciding and defining exactly how they would make films in the future. La promesse, which began life with the working title Le soupirail (The Basement Window), was a script written to be incinerated in “the fire of the film,” as Luc wrote in his diary in August of 1993. “We need to push further with our rejection of aestheticism. One should not feel the (re)mediation of the decor, the actors, the lighting, etc. All of these elements need to be fused into one emotion, one impression of life that is raw, unadorned, which is taking place before the camera but might have been conducted in its absence. The camera will try to follow, not wait, and will not know.” Unlike Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 signatories, they were neither creating a manifesto nor trumpeting the virtues of economy. They were energizing themselves by positioning their art against the normative and the established, not spinning theories but quietly creating a plan of action, to be realized with friends rather than professionals.
La promesse emerged in 1996 as if from out of the blue, and garnered instant acclaim at film festivals around the world. Everyone wondered who these two brothers who had emerged full-blown from the land of Jeanne Dielmann were. Even those of us with a working knowledge of Belgian cinema and certain of its precedents in the blending of fiction and documentary (like Paul Meyer’s Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre, Samy Szlingerbaum’s Bruxelles-Transit, or Chantal Akerman’s tour de force) were taken aback. This may have been a “second first film” in the tradition of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and David Fincher’s Se7en, but it was made with an absolute assurance, on every possible level, normally found in the work of much older artists. Everyone was justifiably bowled over by the physical immediacy and the unwavering radical humanism, but sixteen years and five films later, the hair-raising concision of the scenario—written, as indicated above, not to be admired but to be realized in motion and immolated by the immediacy of the film itself—seems no less impressive.
“We read Toni Morrison before La promesse,” Jean-Pierre told Andrew. “And one thing that impresses us about her writing . . . is how a reader is drawn into the story—you’re never sure where you are, but little by little, clarity comes through.” In medias res storytelling, in which questions of exposition and psychology are turned on their head and everything related to character and situation is imparted through action and picked up (or not) along the way by the audience, had already become ingrained in filmmaking by 1996, but the Dardenne brothers pushed the practice to a new limit in La promesse by purifying the terms of the conflict experienced by their principal character, Igor, played by the fourteen-year-old child actor Jérémie Renier (who has since grown up before their camera). At the core of their approach was a commitment to thinking locally, and to understanding exactly how a working-class kid from Seraing would find his way to compassion for others and the rejection of his own father (Olivier Gourmet, who has also appeared in every subsequent Dardennes film, starring in 2002’s The Son). In this sense, they were, and are, as exacting as Hitchcock. In the case of a boy in Igor’s situation—plucked from school, placed as an apprentice in an auto-body shop but with a primary allegiance to his father and the maintenance of his traffic in undocumented workers, standing tall with adult responsibilities but gradually understanding that his father is exploiting him along with the workers—“local” essentially adds up to: apartment, “hotel” (a decrepit industrial structure that looks permanently cold, dank, putrid), job site (a garage), and the road. The Dardennes also stuck to a clear understanding of the social safety net and its ever-diminishing tensile strength. “People are more and more alone,” Luc explained to Andrew. “When we first wrote La promesse, we had an older character who was supposed to provide guidance to the younger characters. But then we realized that this was nostalgic—now there is no one to be that voice.”
In other words, the Dardennes restrict the scope of their storytelling to incidents or turning points likely to occur within the immediate environment, in order to hew as closely as possible to the conditions of a pure situation. Thus, the drama of the film is played out in the beautiful Renier’s face and slim body, his darting movements and slight hesitations, his small resistances to the always unspooling dictates of Roger, whose rolling energies are devoted to keeping all the particulars of his trafficking business (transport, payments, heating the rooms, hiding all the occupants when the inspectors arrive) as buttoned-down as his son’s affection and obedience. “Malle’s gamble is that the cameras will discover what the artist’s imagination can’t, and steadily, startlingly, the gamble pays off,” wrote Pauline Kael of Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien. What was understood as a gamble in the seventies is at the core of the Dardennes’ art in La promesse and beyond. Their organic process begins with the two of them working out the movements of their characters alone in a room, with a video camera, followed by a lengthy rehearsal period with the actors on the actual sets. In addition, they always shoot in sequence, which allows the actors to feel the arc of their emotional and moral transitions as they go. When Igor is walking back and forth with a wheelbarrow over an impromptu burial site; when he and Roger find perfect musical and human harmony singing Joe Dassin’s late-sixties hit “Siffler sur la colline” or horse around at home before Roger cheerfully orders his son to get back to work forging papers; when Igor walks down one more depersonalized institutional corridor with Assita (Assita Ouédraogo) and her baby before finally telling her the truth about her husband’s whereabouts, you are seeing a perfectly calibrated relationship between characters, their particular modes of gesture and physicality, their world and their circumstances. You are seeing the course of their own nonstop forward motion adjusted by the slowly dawning recognition of other people.
“It seems to me that there is a material impoverishment which leads the way to a spiritual turmoil,” writes Luc in Au dos de nos images. “Think of the decor as a desert.” A desert that is crossed one blind step at a time to the fertile land of awareness.
Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings; the editor of a new collection of essays on Olivier Assayas; the director of the 2007 documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows; and the codirector, with Martin Scorsese, of 2010’s A Letter to Elia. He was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.