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
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.