No br­rot­therrs gr­riim

Bel­gian movie supre­mos Jean-pierre and Luc Dar­denne have made their names prob­ing the dark re­cesses of the hu­man psy­che. They show Don­ald Clarke their lighter side

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

IMUST APOL­O­GISE. This is an­other one of those news­pa­per in­ter­views that deals in mock sur­prise. We ex­pected Burt Celebrity to be­have in such-and­such a way, but he ac­tu­ally be­haves in such-and-such a way. You know the sort of thing.

Jean-pierre and Luc Dar­denne, broth­ers from east­ern Bel­gium, are among the most cel­e­brated of con­tem­po­rary film-mak­ers. They have won the Palme d’or at Cannes on two oc­ca­sions, a feat man­aged by only five other di­rec­tors. Since La Promesse in 1996, ev­ery Dar­dennes film has been re­leased to ec­static re­views.

Here’s the thing. You wouldn’t ex­actly call their films jolly. Util­is­ing a class of per­sua­sively hu­mane re­al­ism, pic­tures such as Le Fils and L’en­fant hang around events so aw­ful that ev­ery frame seems in­fected with ten­sion.

One could be for­given for ex­pect­ing the di­rec­tors to be gloomy fel­lows.

“Glooooomy? Ha, ha, ha!” Jean-pierre chuck­les, rolling the un­fa­mil­iar word round his mouth like a fruit pastille. “That is funny.” True enough, the broth­ers come across as the mer­ri­est men you could ever hope to meet. Al­ways open to a hearty laugh, greatly in favour of self-dep­re­ca­tion, the snow-haired Bel­gians could, if times get rough, eas­ily se­cure jobs as depart­ment-store San­tas.

Come to think of it, their lat­est film is a de­gree less mis­er­able than its bril­liant pre­de­ces­sors. The Kid­with a Bike con­cerns a trou­bled young boy who has been aban­doned by his un­car­ing fa­ther. He risks fall­ing in with a bad lot. He seems pressed down by cir­cum­stances. As ever in the broth­ers’ films, in­ti­ma­tions of dis­as­ter loom. But the con­stant pres­ence of Sa­man­tha, a de­cent, re­spon­si­ble hair­dresser, who cares for the lad, of­fers a de­gree of hope through­out. The picture def­i­nitely takes place in a mer­rier corner of Dar­dennes-land.

“No, that is true,” Luc, at 60, the el­der of the two, muses. “It’s not in­ten­tional, but it is a bit brighter. We shot it in sum­mer. Also there is the fact that we are fol­low­ing a child. And we are fol­low­ing him like a fairy-tale char­ac­ter. You never know. He could still die. But the struc­ture is the sim­ple jour­ney of a fairy tale, with that res­o­lu­tion. Love is stronger than death.”

The film fea­tures the ex­pected low-key nat­u­ral­is­tic per­for­mances. The cam­era con­tin­ues to lurk be­hind the char­ac­ters’ bob­bing heads. Sa­man­tha (played charm­ingly by Cé­cile de France) does, how­ever, feel like some­thing of a de­par­ture for these fa­mously grim film-mak­ers. She is an en­tirely good per­son. Such char­ac­ters come along rarely in se­ri­ous cinema.

“It’s true that such things are hard to ac­cept,” Luc says. “You can eas­ily fall into sen­ti­men­tal­ity. But her char­ac­ter is a very sim­ple char­ac­ter. We worked a lot in re­hearsal and de­ter­mined she shouldn’t be a mother to him.

She must in­stil this de­gree of dis­tance – even if she is up­set by him or moved by him. She has au­thor­ity.” It’s also odd to en­counter a proper movie star in a Dar­denne broth­ers picture. Cé­cile de France is not ex­actly Brigitte Bar­dot, but she is some­what more fa­mous than the ac­tors one usu­ally en­coun­ters in their films.

“You need to change from time to time,” Jean-pierre says. ” We ac­tu­ally never re­ally had a ma­jor cen­tral role for a grown woman be­fore. It’s funny.

“Peo­ple said: ‘You will never be able to work with a fa­mous ac­tress be­cause there are two of you. You will never es­tab­lish that level of con­nec­tion be­cause of that.’” And he cack­les at the ab­sur­dity of it all.

Let’s pon­der the broth­ers’ re­la­tion­ship. The two men grew up as the sons of a draughts­man from Lièges. They be­gan by mak­ing doc­u­men­taries and grad­u­ally drifted to­wards rough ver­ité. They do seem to be ex­traor­di­nar­ily close.

Ev­ery ques­tion elic­its a com­ple­men­tary duo­logue from the men. When Jean-pierre fin­ishes a para­graph, Luc be­gins an­other. Were they al­ways such good chums? “There are only three years be­tween us and where we lived there were a lot of kids our age,” JeanPierre says. “When I was 14 I had a pe­riod where I didn’t want to be with this 11-year-old. But then af­ter that we went to the same sec­ondary school and it changed.

“Like all kids we had very close mo­ments, very in­ti­mate mo­ments. Then there were other mo­ments where we had real fist fights. But we were al­ways very easy go­ing.”

That cer­tainly seems like a fair de­scrip­tion of their per­son­al­i­ties. That good hu­mour must have been a com­fort on the long road to suc­cess. It was not un­til 1999, when Rosetta, a grim tale of poverty and al­co­holism, won the Palme d’or, that the broth­ers gained a de­gree of fame out­side spe­cial­ist cir­cles. Sup­posed ex­perts sud­denly be­gan try­ing to make sense of their sin­gu­lar style. There was some­thing of Ital­ian neo-re­al­ism in there. You could see traces of Robert Bres­son’s quiet re­serve. But the dusty po­etry was all their own.

“You are right about the in­flu­ences,” Luc says. “Bres­son and the Ital­ian neo-re­al­ists were very im­por­tant. But we were also very moved by Krzysztof Kies­lowski’s Deca­logue. The way those films were made re­ally touched us.” He pauses and pulls to­gether a cheeky grin.

“Look, some films are just in­tim­i­dat­ing. You think: I could never do that. It’s not for me. But, when you watch a neo-re­al­is­tic film, you think: that’s not that far away from me. You watch it and think: it might ac­tu­ally be pos­si­ble to make a film like this.”

They are surely be­ing overly mod­est. The films that they made in the first decade of the cen­tury are mas­ter­pieces of con­trol and ap­plied sym­pa­thy. In L’en­fant a young cou­ple sell their baby to a black-mar­ket adop­tion ring. In Le Fils a car­pen­ter hires the boy who was re­spon­si­ble for his son’s death.

The pic­tures are con­sis­tently pow­er­ful and un­flinch­ingly hon­est. I can only as­sume they have made he­roes of Jean-pierre and Luc in their na­tive land.

An­other bout of chuck­ling and head wag­ging en­sues. “There is a wave of op­po­si­tion,” Luc says. “There is an odd bit of jeal­ousy. Look at this year’s Os­cars. They didn’t want our film se­lected.” He’s right. The Bel­gian en­try for this year’s best for­eign lan­guage picture Os­car was a much less cel­e­brated film en­ti­tled Bull­head. “No­body un­der­stands how this hap­pened in the US or among peo­ple we know in Bel­gium.”

Maybe they’d win more friends with the Bel­gian film es­tab­lish­ment if they took a more main­stream route. Could they ever see them­selves aban­don­ing their grainy re­al­ism for some­thing more fan­tas­tic? “Oh I don’t know,” Luc says. “I did have this idea of go­ing and shoot­ing a film in Spain. But JeanPierre was not into the idea.” His brother mimes the mo­tion of a fan be­neath his chin.

“No, no. It’s too hot there, too hot. Ha ha ha!” Yes in­deed. They’re the jol­liest trage­di­ans in north­ern Europe.

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