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Dardenne Brothers at Lincoln Center

Screening the hard-bitten work from before they were the toast of Cannes

The two-headed Belgian filmmaker known as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne usually must devote late May to clearing space on the mantel for more Cannes awards. But this week, they appear in onstage conversation as part of an illuminating retrospective, going back to the late '70s, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It's a good chance to ask, well, how do they do it?

Or: "If you speak of writing fiction, what does it mean?" That's what playwright Jean Louvet asks in 1982's Regard Jonathan. Jean Louvet, son oeuvre, one of the Dardennes' questing labor-focused docs, which are grounded, like the concerted fictions to come, in human specifics—of people, of place, of work. Before Olivier Gourmet's stolid, hernia-belted carpenter in The Son, or Émilie Dequenne's desperately headlong daughter of a trailer-park alcoholic in Rosetta, the Dardennes' first production company, Dérives, eagerly videotaped proud workers recalling streets and scuffles from the 1960 Belgian general strike (1979's Lorsque le bateau de Léon M. descendit la Meuse pour la première fois) and a tight-knit Polish emigré family kibitzing over radio reports during the suppression of the Solidarity movement (1983's Leçons d'une université volante).

The Dardennes' first dramatic feature, Falsch
The Film Society of Lincoln Center
The Dardennes' first dramatic feature, Falsch

High fidelity to concrete experience may seem a truistic mission statement, but these formally restless, dense documents anticipate the careful series of artistic choices in the brothers' string of later features, often characterized as interchangeably perfect handheld chronicles. Whereas the early films orchestrate tracking shots, play readings, and even "Space Invaders" sounds, the Dardennes (and longtime DP Alain Marcoen) are equally precise later about camera distances, clothing, and pacing. Jérémie Renier's Bruno in L'enfant (2005), the poster boy for Bad Life Choices for selling his girlfriend's newborn, is framed so that the potent image of a petty thief with an empty pram never eclipses the reality of an immature 20-year-old without the capacity to reflect. And the sounds he hears, which we hear with him, are wrought with care: black marketeers riffling through his cash in an adjacent room, their debt-leveraging thugs later delivering the poison-dart of dialogue, "Steal for us instead of yourself."

Pulling us into personal space, these features then raise the moral and psychological stakes: the driven titular protagonist in 1999's Rosetta, snitching for a job at a waffle stand; Gourmet in The Son, apprenticing his dead son's assailant. Fatherhood is fraught throughout their work; unemployment fuels the sexual anxiety of the steelworker in their 1992 family melodrama, Je pense à vous, the Dardennes' second feature before the turning point of La Promesse. Five years earlier, their Falsch adapted a René Kalisky play into an abstracted echo chamber of resentment among related Holocaust victims and survivors.

It doesn't hurt that the clock is running down (and out) on most Dardenne characters and their secret struggles, though their latest, Lorna's Silence (opening in July), shows off a new shape to their storytelling. Ever focused on their post-industrial home country, the brothers have avoided being pigeonholed into some regionalist category—the grace and concerns of their cinematic domain lie open to us all.

 
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