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The eastern Belgium industrial town of Seraing (pop. 60,000) is considerably better known for its factories—iron, steel, crystal— than for its filmmakers. And yet there are the brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who have managed to amass one of the most lauded bodies of work in contemporary world cinema (including twice winning the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or) without ever venturing far from the banks of the Meuse River, which has long been their muse.
If there is one key disappointment to Anthology’s four-film Dardenne retrospective, “Swimming Upstream,” it’s that it pays no attention to the Dardennes’ career before 1996, when La Promesse, commonly misidentified as their debut feature, made a splash in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Even at that time, few critics noted that the Dardennes had already been working steadily in film for more than 20 years, beginning in the early 1970s, when they were commissioned by the Belgian government to make a nonfiction video about working-class housing developments. After that, they formed their own production company, which over the next two decades became the base for some 60 documentary films produced and/or directed by the Dardennes on subjects ranging from the anti-Nazi resistance to the proletariat playwright Jean Louvet.
Those films were little seen outside Belgium until, relatively recently, they began surfacing in a few exhaustive Dardenne retros, but they are undeniably fascinating, both on their own terms and for giving the auteur theory a run for its money. Whereas La Promesse and its successors, marked by their roving handheld camerawork and visceral location shooting, have been duly praised for their documentary verisimilitude, the Dardennes’ actual documentaries make extensive use of dramatic re-enactments, studio-filmed interviews, and other highly artificial devices. Much the same can be said of the Dardennes’ debut narrative feature, Falsch (1987), a touching film about survivor’s guilt faithfully adapted from René Kalisky’s post-Brechtian play. Five years later, a second narrative effort, Je Pense à Vous, found the brothers working with more characteristic subject matter (a factory closure), but was otherwise a conventional melodrama full of pretty, sun-drenched vistas and a treacly musical score.
So La Promesse, with its story of a father and son involved in an illegal human-trafficking operation, was a breakthrough in more ways than one, putting the Dardennes on the international map, but also serving as an artistic turning point. A template for everything the Dardennes have done since, it flies across the screen with spellbinding narrative economy and an unwavering commitment to storytelling through action. The characters in a Dardenne movie are constantly in motion, either on foot or on motorbike; dialogue is employed as sparingly as a precious natural resource; and the brothers have an abiding interest in morality and human suffering.
Rosetta (1999) brought the Dardennes back to Cannes, ultimately winning them their first Palme. There was also a Best Actress prize for the unforgettable Émilie Dequenne, whose eponymous factory worker loses her job and begins a spiral into near-madness, at one point clinging to a sack of flour at a roadside waffle stand as though it were a vital organ. In The Son (2002), the Dardennes hit upon a moral dilemma worthy of Dostoevsky: A carpentry teacher (regular Dardenne collaborator Olivier Gourmet) discovers that a student in another class is responsible for the death of his son, then goes out of his way to take the murderer under his wing. It is a brilliant exercise in style, with the camera rarely more than a few inches from Gourmet’s face. In 2005, The Child proved to be a typically blistering study of greed and its ramifications, in which an aimless street hustler named Bruno (Jérémie Renier, who made his screen debut as the son in La Promesse) sells his newborn son on the black market, only to suffer a belated crisis of conscience and attempt to reverse that devil’s bargain.
When it too won the Palme d’Or, The Child put the Dardennes in an elite company of double winners that includes Francis Ford Coppola and Shohei Imamura. And once again it’s set in Seraing, which by now has come to seem as essential for the Dardennes as Dublin was for Joyce—a vast crucible of human experience waiting, quite literally, in their own backyard.