CANNES, FRANCE—In a festival dominated by questions of paternity, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s masterpiece of fatherhood gone foul The Child was a popular choice for the Palme d’Or, with enthusiastic applause coming from the weary press corps lapping up the typically officious ceremony at the Salle Debussy. Among the few dissenters was Cahiers du Cinéma, their complaint being that the Dardennes—unlike Robert Rodriguez—failed to show cinematic invention, especially following their most radical work, The Son; in other words, that no Rosetta stone is necessary to unravel the Belgian brothers’ gripping social realism.
Made with 15 on-camera babies, eight standbys, and one animatronic dummy the brothers dubbed “Jimmy Crash,” The Child is the fourth straight feature the Dardennes have shot in their hometown of Seraing—and their most perfectly realized narrative. “This is where we spent our youth and learned the lessons of our adulthood,” says Luc, the one with less hair, over lunch. “All of the people we have encountered over the years . . . have gone into characters like [The Child‘s] Bruno and Sonia. It’s also there that for the first time we kissed girls—but that’s a secret!” (Sorry, guys.)
Le cinéma Dardenne is an ongoing Bressonian project. “We are interested in the gestures and accessories of work,” says Jean-Pierre. “We are filming Bruno’s gestures like we would film anyone’s gestures. Though Bruno doesn’t have a job, he’s always working, buying and selling things. Even the way Jérémie [Renier] pulls out his cell phone is completely unique.” Like the French master —”Bresson is the best!” exclaims Luc—the brothers run their actors into a state of numbed automatism, with The Child‘s shooting ratio clocking in at an astounding 20-1 of carefully mapped-out plans-sequence.
The changes from one Dardennes film to the next are subtle yet drastic—who’d have thought that they’d ever shoot a chase scene? And The Child‘s camerawork (by Alain Marcoen), though still handheld, differs from The Son‘s. “We often were dealing with two characters, and we wanted to keep an eye on both, not be inside one of them as with Olivier in The Son,” says Jean-Pierre. “And the camera is naturally more stable: In many other scenes we see Bruno waiting. Our editor said it was amazing; there’s so much footage of Jérémie standing around!” And don’t think the brothers won’t expand their vision to frame even more characters: “We were looking for a story to adapt, and we were very interested in Mystic River. It was expensive and Clint Eastwood of course got the rights.” How would their version have differed? Says Luc, laughing, “It would have been in Seraing!”
Strangely, the Cahiers bunch refused to level that same critique at Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose Three Times (in Chinese, the more apropos Best Moments) dazzled late in the game, to bleary eyes, swooning hearts, and a case of déjà vu. A triptych on Taiwanese time, love, and communication, Hou’s film can be read as a gloss on his own cinematic development, with each section recalling a different Hou hit. It’s also a triumphant return to history—both his nation’s and his own.
More explicitly than The Child, Three Times is rooted in memory: The first section, subtitled “A Time for Love,” is set in 1966 Kaohsiung and sees Hou filming one of his own fondest recollections—chasing pool hall girls while listening to Western pop classics like Aphrodite’s Child’s “Rain and Tears” (as indelible here as Wong Kar-wai’s use of “California Dreaming”) and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a song that Hou, an avid karaoke practitioner, proudly announces that he has recorded himself.
While chain-smoking behind shades, Hou admits a similarity to his previous films; Three Times was a function of its scant three-month production schedule. “It’s very difficult to find architecture or traces of daily life from 1911 or even 1966,” he explains, “so I chose to concentrate more on character and story, which explains the linearity of the first two parts.” The third episode, “A Time for Youth,” set in the Millennium Mambo-like present, features Shu Qi as an epileptic bisexual pop singer; Hou’s fractured filming, he says, “shows the complexity of today’s period . . . that’s the way I see existence today. And there’s no distance to see beyond this fragmentation.”
For “A Time for Freedom,” a ravishing silent melodrama set entirely in a 1911 Dadaocheng brothel, Hou and ace cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bin consciously avoided mimicking Flowers of Shanghai, using different lighting and decor. “When I found a location, we made our decisions on the spot, and worked little by little to correct our ideas as we went along.” Hou notes that the section wasn’t planned as silent, but “in 1911, Taiwanese society was speaking a very literary dialect, and if I would have made the actors learn that language, it would have taken too long, and probably wouldn’t have been very convincing.”
Cahiers cynics, be very afraid: Three Times looks to be the first installment in—yes—an ongoing project. “When I say that these are the best of times, it’s that these moments can’t happen again due to time and space, because we can never go backwards. In my memory, I think of historical figures, people I’ve met before, fictional characters I’ve read about, and they melt together. There’s no need to make a big film where all the characters appear; I can make short films using these pieces of memory.” Maybe one of these future projects will earn Hou the Palme he so richly deserves.