Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Remastering the Film: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

[At the beginning of last year, I announced a project that I called Remastering the Film, which (I hoped) would constitute a more critical continuation of a scholarly project left unfinished by Charles Thomas Samuels at his death in 1974. Using Samuels' criterion of including in the study only those filmmakers who have made at least three great films, I came up with my own list that both (humbly) corrects and updates Samuels' list. Without grouping them, as Samuels did, according to style, my list was, in alphabetical order:

Gianni Amelio
Michelangelo Antonioni
Bruce Beresford
Ingmar Bergman
Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Federico Fellini
Shohei Imamura
Hirokazu Koreeda
Akira Kurosawa
Louis Malle
Yasujiro Ozu
Jean Renoir
Vittorio De Sica
Bertrand Tavernier
Francois Truffaut
Jan Troell
Zhang Yimou

I then started to write, every few weeks, a brief overview of the contribution of each filmmaker. But I only got as far as Akira Kurosawa, jumping over several others on the list. Let's see if I can complete my project by the end of 2011!]

Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

There are many people who would rather that film - and everything else for that matter - stayed clear of politics. That this is in itself a political attitude is by now abundantly clear. Of course, a political agenda can be found in the unlikeliest places. Bresson's art was medieval in more than just design. His films, inadvertently I am sure, come close to enunciating Marx's "sigh of the soul in a soulless world." And Joan Mellen cannot have been the first to point out how Ozu's sympathies were always with the traditional patriarchal Japanese family, eroded to the extent that only the father is left standing, with adoring daughters tearfully departing.

Vernon Young once observed that the French filmmaker André Cayatte had "domesticated the pièce à thèse." Cayatte was a former lawyer who made films with overtly political themes, like Justice Is Done (1950), We Are All Murderers (1952) (about capital punishment), and An Eye for an Eye (1957). Without being as blatant and possessing much greater artistry than Cayatte, the brothers Jean-Pierre (b. 21 April 1951) and Luc (b. 10 March 1954) Dardenne have gone much further in domesticating the political film.

Born in Seraing, an industrial sector of the medieval city of Liège, Belgium, the Dardennes are among the most highly acclaimed filmmakers in the world. All of their films have used Seraing as their setting. They draw their characters from the working classes, and in some cases from a classless, virtually homeless "demographic" group, which they themselves claim comprises 15% of consumer society.

Gaining their first international attention in 1996 with the film La Promesse, about a 15-year-old boy who must fulfill a promise to look out for a dead man's wife and child, despite a world that tells him not to, the Dardennes's next three films, Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and The Child (2005), are masterworks of their edgy, passionately involved approach to humanity.

The stories they tell are about people whom the rest of us have passed by, the exceptions to our ruling principles of gain and expend, of consume and discard, of throw away values and disposable gods. When I wrote a tribute to
Vittorio De Sica several years ago, I mentioned how, in his best films, he always went looking for his heroes in the most overlooked places - among the homeless shoeshine boys of postwar Rome, the unemployed, who have to sell wedding gifts (bed linen) to get the money to buy a bicycle, an old man to whom people give charity more out of pity for his little dog than for him, whose pension puts him at the mercy of a grasping landlady.

The Dardennes' uniqueness has led some critics on a wide-ranging search for comparisons. Even the shadow of Bresson (Mouchette and Pickpocket) has fallen on the Dardennes. Strangely, as if the moral and political urgency of their films were not urgent enough, some critics claim to have found "spiritual" themes in them. Bresson is only interested in his characters' souls, not their skins. When your belly is empty, you will find there is not much time to bother about your soul. Rosetta, for example, is hedged in by so many insuperable problems, like the nightmare of unemployment, that she must hurry at everything that engages her. Trying to determine exactly when or why she could find the time to cultivate a spiritual life, or any inner life at all, is, to me, a fool's errand. If, as in The Child, the child's father eventually discovers enough humanity to regret his actions, he does so at the cost of his liberty.

What is remarkable about the Dardennes' films is their proof that these people are still with us, still the subjects of discussion, even of debate. One of the implicit messages of all these films - and of Bicycle Thieves, Il Posto, Vagabond and The Dreamlife of Angels - is that our ideas about progress are figments so long as people such as these live and breathe. "They are disregarded," Jean-Pierre Dardenne has said, "left to the side, left to rot. These are the people we are interested in, that we film."*

* Interview included in the bonus features of the L'Enfant DVD.

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