In Search of Bare Realism, The Dardenne Brothers Keep Turning Their Camera on Societys Overlooked Members

If I were to count on one hand the most preeminent humanist filmmakers of our time, the first two fingers would have to be dedicated to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Bringing empathy and insight to stories of immigrants, outcasts and the working poor, the Belgian siblings have dedicated their career to observing characters Western society prefers to overlook.

In that time, the brothers have screened every one of their 12 features at Cannes, collecting two Palme d’Or trophies — in 1999 for “Rosetta” and 2002 for “L’Enfant.” The Dardennes keep the prizes in the office they share at their Liège-based production company, Les Films du Fleuve. “They are in an armoire so the sight of them doesn’t weigh too heavily on our shoulders when we start working on a new film,” they tell Variety.

Few directors have produced as thematically or aesthetically consistent an oeuvre as the Dardennes, whose direct, observational style gives the impression that audiences are watching real people in real time. Where other filmmakers offer escapist distraction from the real world, the Dardennes tell tough, unsparing and often brutal stories. That has never been more true than with their most recent feature, “Tori and Lokita,” a drama about two African refugees, ages 12 and 17, desperately hustling to get the papers that will keep them from being deported.

For years, I’d known that the brothers began their career in documentaries, and judging by the revolutionary approach they established in the mid-’90s — which brings an immersive, immediate vérité sensibility to scripted material — I’d leapt to the conclusion that their style was a direct translation of that experience to narrative filmmaking. I’d even repeated that assumption to students over the years when showing their films. But a recent, career-spanning retrospective in New York and Los Angeles offered a rare chance to screen their early work, and also for me to interview the Dardennes, who revealed a different story.

“Yes, it’s true that we’d done 10 or so nonfiction films, but there’s little crossover between how we made those documentaries and the way we approach fiction films,” explained Jean-Pierre, the older of the Dardenne brothers. The pair are more affable than you might expect, considering the seriousness of their subject matter, smiling and laughing frequently in conversation. “Early on, we focused on the worker’s movement in the industrial section of Liège, but most of our documentaries were like oral histories. We shot people with a fixed camera talking about their experience,” Jean-Pierre continued.

The Dardennes’ signature handheld look — that gritty, ground-level aesthetic — came later, not so much an extension of their documentary work as a reaction to the failure of their first two scripted movies, “Falsch” and “Je pense à vous.” Come to find, the very first shot in the very first film by the Dardenne brothers tracks from one end of an abandoned airport terminal to the other — not at all a technique that fans of their work might expect.

Adapted from a play by René Kalisky, “Falsch” is a sometimes grim, often surreal Sartrean drama in which members of a Jewish family, most of them killed by Nazis in World War 2, reunite decades later in a kind of purgatory to compare their fates.

“Falsch” was invited to Cannes, but it didn’t exactly launch their careers. Neither did their next film, “Je pense à vous.” While “Falsch” feels arty and conceptual in ways that now seem forced and phony, “Je pense à vous” does at least presage the Dardennes’ later work: Gloomy and gray, it takes place in Seraing, the industrial city just a few miles upstream from Liège where all their subsequent films would be set. (The directors prefer to shoot during winter, when the skylines look most austere and their characters appear in heavy clothes, their cheeks flushed.)

Jean-Pierre is the first to admit, “That movie wasn’t good. It was the first time we had tried our hand at fiction. We didn’t come from film school, we were self-taught, and we wanted to do it ‘right.’ And it was a catastrophe.” In retrospect, their approach was too “academic,” he said. The inexperienced directors gave in to too many of the financiers’ demands, such as casting “bankable” stars instead of the actors they really wanted.

As the film opens, the local steel factory is shutting down. A blue-collar family man (Robin Renucci, a fine actor who’d been nominated for a César two years earlier and here insisted on giving a tortured, theatrical performance) loses his position at the same plant where his father died on the job years earlier. The setback sends him into a tailspin. He walks out on his wife and son, drinking away his sorrows at a bordello/bar on the outskirts of town before pulling it together in time for the film’s improbable happy ending — a group hug staged amid the street carnival of Binche.

It took the Dardennes three years to recover from that disappointment and figure out a different approach that was truer to the world around them. But they weren’t alone. At nearly that same moment, Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and a handful of Danish filmmakers unveiled their “Vow of Chastity” at the Cannes Film Festival. Known as Dogma 95, the manifesto argued for eschewing the artifice of cinema in service of a new truth.

Back in Belgium, the Dardennes were thinking along the same lines.

“We made a point of eliminating anything excessive or unnecessary,” Jean-Pierre told me. “We wanted to pare things down to the bare essentials of making film — a camera, a single 25mm lens, almost no lights or equipment — to get back to the purity of the actions and the characters. That process of stripping away let us interact with the actors and the scene so the audience would also connect in a more direct way.”

The Dardennes applied this new philosophy on their next film, 1996’s “La Promesse,” in which a boy named Igor (Jérémie Renier) disobeys his domineering father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) in order to honor an injured worker’s dying wish. In collaboration with longtime cinematographer Alain Marcoen, the choices they made on that film determined nearly all of the codes that their subsequent features have followed, establishing a cinematic language that would, in short order, reshape the way Hollywood represents “reality.”

Anytime a cameraman reacts to something a split-second after it happens, rather than anticipating the action (à la opening scene of “Children of Men”), or shadows a character so closely they seem glued to the back of their head (as in “The Wrestler”), you could draw a line of influence back to the Dardennes.

According to Jean-Pierre, “What our early documentaries do have in common with our more recent films is that the people had their lives before the cameras rolled, and they keep on going after we cut. It’s been the aim of our fiction films to give that same impression.”

Casting is also key to the sense of verisimilitude they’re striving to achieve. On “La Promesse,” for the first time, they insisted on using unknown actors. They considered hundreds of boys before settling on Renier. “He was a real animal,” Luc said. “There was a physicality in the way he moved where his instinct was always right. He had a natural sense for it.”

The directors have since collaborated with Renier on four more features. “When we found Olivier, we had been searching for a kind of everyman, someone who looked normal, even banal, someone who didn’t have the face of an actor,” Luc said.

Jean-Pierre discovered Gourmet while serving on the jury of a theater academy, and the brothers invited him to a casting session. He wore thick glasses, which might have been a deal-breaker for most directors, but not the Dardennes, who thought the glasses might be good for the character.

The brothers even liked the idea that at times, the lenses might obscure Gourmet’s eyes — a strategy they used to maintain a certain ambiguity about the character’s emotions and motives in 2002’s “The Son,” where Gourmet plays Olivier, a grief-stricken carpenter who accepts his son’s killer as an apprentice. Audiences spend most of the film wondering whether he intends to get revenge, and tight framing in which the faces are often partly obscured, makes it hard to anticipate what he might do next.

“In our films, the camera is never supposed to be above the characters in terms of power. Instead, it’s often following behind them, trying to keep up with what they’re doing,” Jean-Pierre explained. “We often choose to put the camera in the ‘wrong’ place so that you can’t see everything. We found that this inability to capture everything that movies traditionally show brings something very powerful to the experience.”

In “La Promesse,” for example, when immigrant Hamidou (Rasmané Ouédraogo) falls from the scaffolding at Roger’s illegal work site, the camera is indoors with Igor. The accident occurs off-screen — although I was surprised to learn how they came to that decision.

“To be honest, we filmed the fall,” Luc told me. “We did it both ways, but we realized that it’s stronger if we stay with the boy. He hears something and wonders, ‘What just happened?’ We’re really in the moment with Igor, and then we discover the body of Hamidou on the ground.”

“It’s less spectacular, but more dramatic and intense,” Jean-Pierre agreed. “We rehearse a lot, adjusting the rhythm and asking ourselves how to organize things, but in a way that you don’t sense the organization. That’s the key. We also do a lot of takes.”

Something similar happens in the climactic scene of “La Promesse,” as Igor is accompanying Hamidou’s widow, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), and her baby to the train station. “The audience has been waiting for nearly an hour and a half, hoping that Igor will tell the truth to this woman,” Jean-Pierre said. The camera is following the two characters, observing them from behind, and suddenly, without warning, Igor comes clean about Hamidou’s fall. The boy is off-camera when he says it. Assita pauses in mid-step, her face turned away from the camera, its expression unknown.

“At that moment, the audience is ultimately more connected to Assita than if they were facing her,” Jean-Pierre said. The brothers have been greatly inspired by the Italian neorealist movement, shooting on real locations (eagle-eyed audiences will notice that Renier crosses the same bridge in “La Promesse” and “L’Enfant,” for instance). But unlike Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, who added music and dialogue in post-production, they record all sound directly on location.

For the last scene of “La Promesse,” they were assisted by chance. During shooting, a mail train noisily started moving on the platform upstairs, giving a boost of added tension to the scene.

“When it’s dramatically useful, as much as possible, we try to make the sound environment a kind of partner for the actors,” Jean-Pierre said, adding, “When the actors are working on the side of the road, we try not to block traffic.”

On their next film, “Rosetta,” the brothers pushed their newfound style even further. The title character (played by young discovery Émilie Dequenne) is like a locomotive of action, obsessed with finding a job.

“When we wrote the script, we said to ourselves, ‘Rosetta never knows what she’s going to do tomorrow, whether she’ll work or not.’ Will she have to sell clothes? Will her mother be drunk?” Luc recalled. “We said, ‘We must stay with her, and we must be surprised by her movements, any time she gets an idea or reacts to an obstacle.’”

That strategy thrusts audiences into Rosetta’s experience. She lives in a trailer park, where she poaches fish to eat. But she refuses welfare, spending the whole movie in desperate search of employment.

Rosetta exemplifies the kind of morally complex characters that the Dardennes are drawn to in every film. Often existing on the margins of society, they bend the rules and make mistakes, but they are never idle. The brothers insist on active protagonists, whether they’re negotiating to keep their jobs (as Cotillard does in “Two Days, One Night”) or racing to retrieve a baby sold on the black market (in “L’Enfant”).

“They are always responsible for what they do or don’t do,” Jean-Pierre said. “We don’t treat any of our characters like victims.”

Since “Falsch,” all of the Dardennes’ films have been original screenplays, set in the present and drawn from stories they’d either read in the news or elaborated from real life. But the brothers aren’t opposed to adapting a book and even looked into getting the rights to two American novels that had impressed them — Russell Banks’ “Affliction” and Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River” — only to find that Paul Schrader and Clint Eastwood had beaten them to it.

“For us, a strong film character is someone who’s a prisoner, but they fight. He or she doesn’t always know what they’re up against, but they’re trying to change something, to transform something,” Luc said. Or as Jean-Pierre put it, “They are people who are in movement, and we film their movement.”

But they do so according to their own style. For example, at the end of “Two Days, One Night,” the cameraman wanted to follow alongside Cotillard’s character as she’s walking. Instead of using a dolly, they rigged an equipment cart with wheels, which shakes a bit as it tracks her, giving the Dardennes the rough quality they wanted.

“As a rule, we’re not against traveling shots, but the camerawork shouldn’t be too smooth, or else we get the feeling that we’ve disconnected from reality,” Luc said.

The same goes for casting movie stars, whether it was Cécile de France (a fellow Belgian, despite her name) in “The Kid with a Bike” or Oscar winner Cotillard. “In France, she’s an icon, so how do we de-iconify her?” said Jean-Pierre. They carefully deconstructed every element of her image — the hair, the makeup, the fluorescent pink tank top that served as her wardrobe — to create a character that viewers will accept as a real person.

What audiences think of as realism is in fact a meticulously curated facsimile of the real world, what the brothers call a “bare realism.” Luc elaborated: “We try to erase anything that could draw the eye away to something other than our characters. The more minimalist we can make it, the more true it is.”

In “Tori and Lokita,” they wanted the hangar where Lokita works to look rough. The walls, the lights and everything else is designed so as not to distract. The same goes for the place where Olivier lives in “The Son,” which the Dardennes stripped of furniture and family photos till it resembled a bunker more than a home — a reflection of the character’s emotional state since the death of his son.

“If we were being strictly realistic, our characters would wear baseball caps, the way young people do on the street. But you will never see a baseball cap in our movies, because if there were, we’d be committing to an image of the character, like you see in advertising and other films. By eliminating that detail, it shifts things ever so slightly and leaves room for the characters, from Igor up through Tori, to be themselves,” Jean-Pierre explained. “Our characters should always be the priority.”

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