Since La Promesse (1996) established them as international art-house stars, the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have constructed perhaps the most fiercely focused oeuvre in contemporary cinema.
Their social-realist dramas—which include two Palme d’Or winners, 1999’s Rosetta and the new L’Enfant—are above all profoundly ethical thrillers, set in and around the depressed industrial town of Seraing. So spare and concentrated that they inevitably take on a spiritual dimension, their films are also lucid studies of economic survival on the neglected fringes of late capitalism. The Dardennes’ films do not just, as has often been noted, deal with work—they are minutely concerned with the sometimes impossible math of making a living and palpably freighted with the mental and physical toll of daily labor, whether it’s carpentry (2002’s The Son), waffle vending (Rosetta), or small-time grift (L’Enfant). The brothers spoke to the Voice while in town for last fall’s New York Film Festival.
Your recent films have been almost obsessively focused on their main characters. Is the starting point usually a story line or a person?
Luc Dardenne: For L’Enfant, it was an image. While shooting The Son, we would see this young woman pushing a baby carriage, very violently, as if she was somehow trying to get rid of the child. When we got around to thinking about our next film, this vision reappeared. Eventually, the missing character, the child’s father, became the main character. We had discussed before the idea of a father selling his baby, but we didn’t want that actual act to become the central element. We wanted to tell the story of a man who, to accept paternity, has to sell his child first.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: It’s important for us that the characters don’t become prisoners of the story. They should retain a sense of autonomy. They’re not pieces on a chessboard.
Do you always know ahead of time how you’re ending a film? The last few films have very potent final scenes. Since your characters are, as you say, autonomous, do they sometimes lead you in unexpected directions?
JPD: For The Son, on the last day, we came up with a different ending. Since we shoot chronologically, we have a sense as we go of how the story is developing. In L’Enfant, we knew what we wanted from the start. We always had in mind this reconciliation. There were other endings that we considered—one of them had a longer chase scene and a shooting—but they seemed a little bit too “adventure,” too much like a crime or an action film.
LD: We also don’t like to kill our characters—we love them too much. Shooting our films is such a physical ordeal for the actors that we want to save them at the end.
Does your concern with downtrodden characters have its roots in activism? Were you politically active as young men?
JPD: There was always a desire on our part to take people from the margins of society and put them in the center of the images we make. We weren’t active politically but the first documentaries we made were portraits of working-class people who were active in unions, or in Communist or socialist or Christian movements.
LD: Seraing was once a vibrant working-class town, with a strong labor movement. But with the crisis that struck the steel mills in the early ’70s, suddenly, we saw people like Rosetta and [L’Enfant‘s] Bruno and Sonia, cut off from each other and with no social ties to the previous generation.
Your films are often parsed as spiritual allegories. Were you raised Christian?
JPD: Yes, a strong Catholic upbringing, until we were in our teens and rejected what our father had imposed on us. But despite the coercive, puritanical elements of religion, our education taught us to acknowledge other people as human beings. We were forbidden to watch TV or movies, though—our father thought they were the devil incarnate.