Dardenne Brothers at Lincoln Center


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
) 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).

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
, 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.