Known for their hypernaturalistic, slow but rhythmic dramas that invariably concern the struggles of one or more working class characters, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are Belgian’s most renowned filmmakers. The brothers began working in documentaries in the 1970s and in these early works one can already see the gradual formation of their signature styles—austere, methodical, a hand-held camera, use of available light, an absence of non-diegetic music, the observation of everyday tasks, and a sense of moral weightiness that centers on a taciturn protagonist.
Their first narrative films represent a training ground for bringing forth some of the documentary form to dramaturgy, a project not fully crystallized until the brothers’ 1996 film La Promesse (The Promise). In this breakthrough entry, a teenage mechanic apprentice experiences a moral awakening when confronting his father’s scheme to traffic and exploit undocumented immigrants. (The movie takes place in the dilapidated Belgium city of Seraing, the Dardennes’ childhood hometown and the setting for most of their films.) The film portrays the precarious predicament and vulnerabilities of immigrants living in Belgium, revealing social and political structures which allow for their exploitation. The Dardennes complicate and deepen their sociological perspective by showing the ways in which their exploiters, although in a position of power over migrants, are themselves victims of more powerful landlords and creditors, revealing a hierarchical stratification of abuses.
In 1999, their next film, Rosetta, would go on to win the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or. Further developing the difficult moral queries of their previous work, Rosetta concerns a seventeen-year-old girl and her struggle to survive (escape) a cycle of poverty that has led her mother into alcoholism. Rosetta, desperate to find employment, considers betraying her friend who has been secretly stealing from his boss. The Dardennes set one exploited worker against another, challenging any moralizing impulse by revealing the structures of economy which feed the desperation of their characters. A project of exposing large social dysfunction develops along the lines of small stories, getting close to characters and inviting audiences to empathize with impossible moral problems (“Do I starve or do I ask someone else to starve in my place?”).
The historical or thematic breadth of the Dardennes’ documentary work and earlier narrative work had, by this time, become intimate, more personal, and intensely character-driven; the structural critique is present as ever, but now imbued with the emotional connectivity of a human face, shot in close-up. The intimacy of Rosetta and its concentration on psychology invited more philosophical and spiritual readings. Moving forward, any structuralist political critique was now necessarily accompanied by a humanist drive. What use are politics if they do not concern the real life trouble and worries of people, and how can politics be truly communicated if not with the pathos of these problems?
Given their new prestigious place in arthouse and world cinema, the Dardennes began producing other work from promising filmmakers. They also continued their own projects, further atomizing and honing their particular interests and stylistic tendencies.
In 2005 the Dardennes became members of an elite honorific club of two-time Palme d’Or winning filmmakers with their film L’Enfant (The Child). The movie returned to familiar themes (human trafficking, a dysfunctional economic system, the increasingly distressing closeness to characters stuck between moral crisis and subsistence living), following a young couple struggling to survive on dwindling welfare checks and desperate to make ends meet. When they cannot financially support their infant child, the boyfriend considers selling the baby to a black market adoption ring.
Consistently competing at Cannes and other world-recognized festivals, the Dardennes have become monolithic arthouse figures. Highly influential in their stylizations, they have led a whole movement of austere, naturalistic, contemplative, and dialogue-light films that take as their subject the problems of everyday and especially working class people. In this way, the Dardennes constitute a Realist revolution not unlike the one initiated by Jean-François Millet at the Salon in Paris in 1857 with his painting The Gleaners. Depicting three peasant women, hunched over and collecting the scraps of stray wheat stalks leftover by the idle landowners as a bounty of crop rests above them at the horizon and out of reach, Millet’s painting upset the classicist sensibilities of middle and upper class audiences, showing poverty not as a facet of religious piety, but a product of an insidious social structure which excludes a class of people from the fruits of their own labor and the wealth of society.
The Dardennes’ most recent film, The Unknown Girl, changes up their formula in interesting ways. Although still concerned with familiar social critiques, the new film plays with genre, introducing more traditional plot beats to unfold a whodunit detective story. In this way, the brothers have made perhaps their most accessible film yet. But, The Unknown Girl also begins a new project of self-commentary and reflection, one that carries an unnerving self-awareness.
After a young doctor ignores the ringing bell of the clinic she works at during after hours, she becomes determined to uncover the identity of the migrant woman found dead not far from the hospital and who, security footage reveals, was the person seeking help at her door the night before. Has the woman died of natural causes or has she been murdered? After we’ve come to understand the structural problems that so many vulnerable people are confronted with, what then is our moral responsibility? Looking the closest the brothers ever have to the guilt of a bystander, it seems their filmmaking is entering a new phase of questioning, a Brechtian entreat to implicate the audience, or perhaps more interestingly, an anxious artist’s lament, that they’ve not, themselves, yet done anything but describe the problem.
The Unknown Girl marks one other significant deviation from the brothers’ formula: Jenny, The Unknown Girl’s protagonist, is not working class. She’s the first protagonist that is like the Dardenne brothers themselves—she stands outside of the world she works with, she does not share the same desperation as her patients and cannot fully understand their struggle. What new dimension of moral impart does this distance invoke for the Dardennes’ project?
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.