There are few filmmakers working today like Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the sibling duo from Belguim who have, amongst their many festival accolades, directed two Palme d’Or winning films — Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (2005). I first encountered the brothers when I was living in northern France, once an industrial center that, like the Dardenne’s native Seraing on the outskirts of Liege, had witnessed the devastating consequences of de-industrialization. What was left has become at once a familiar feature of our everyday lives in the West and a rarity in our cinema, namely the abstract and characterless zones of commerce, circulation, and housing on the urban periphery. It is here that the Dardennes set their everyday dramas that, by virtue of their straightforward, unadorned presentation, are some of the most revealing and affecting films in contemporary cinema.
In The Cinema of the Dardenne Brothers: Responsible Realism Philip Mosley provides an essential account of where this cinema emerged and what exactly makes the Dardennes such distinct and important filmmakers. Mosley is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University and has produced many works of scholarship and translation, including Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity and a translation of Francois Jacqmin’s The Book of the Snow, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize. I spoke with Mosley about what he means by “responsible realism,” the importance of working class political movement for realist filmmakers, and the history of Belgian cinema.
Michael Schapira: How did you first encounter the films of the Dardenne brothers? Did you immediately respond to their approach to filmmaking and the subject matter of the films?
Philip Mosley: When The Promise was released in 1996 and made the brothers’ reputation as filmmakers, I was already familiar with Belgian cinema, having studied it as an expansion of my initial interest in Belgian francophone literature, of which I’ve translated a number of texts in prose and verse. Eventually I wrote a history, Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity. Growing up in eastern England close to the North Sea, I had traveled often to France and the Low Countries and had been exposed quite early to their languages and cultures. Then I had lived in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1980s before coming to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area of northeastern Pennsylvania. Both areas, rich in industrial history, have had to face the challenges of postindustrial decline. So the content of the Dardennes’ films immediately chimed with my own experiences of these predominantly blue-collar communities.
In the book you write, “One consequence of the collapse of traditional leftist discourses and grand ideological narratives has been in how realist cinema of the last three decades has represented ordinary people.” Yet even if this is the case you still see strong exceptions in the Dardennes, Ken Loach, and Mike Leigh, all filmmakers from places that were once heavily informed by a strong working-class consciousness and their correlate political structures. Even if the grand ideological narratives have collapsed, do you think a kind of vestigial memory of working class life can still guide realist filmmakers? And if so, have you thought about the challenges that this poses to American filmmakers, who have a much less organized form of class consciousness to tap into?
The Dardennes certainly draw on a “vestigial memory” for their films. They grew up in an area that had long been the engine-room of Belgium, one marked by a strong political consciousness. They witnessed the death throes of those heavy industries that had spawned the working-class solidarity of their communities.
They were also influenced by the grand sweep of post-1968 European leftism. It has been more difficult for American filmmakers to tap into these sources of class consciousness whose ideological structures have become buried beneath a superficial and homogenous culture. The process of tapping ought perhaps to be an easier task for independent directors free of studio demands and constraints. Hollywood invariably has trouble with unadorned representations of the poor and the disadvantaged whose life stories may not produce positive resolutions in the form of glamor, adventure, triumphant individualism, and social mobility.
I liked the sequencing of your book. You begin with a chapter on what you call “responsible realism,” then mark out the philosophical and cinematic touchstones that are helpful to understand the arc of the Dardennes’ career, and finally proceed chronologically through the filmography. Why did you choose this kind of approach, as opposed to drawing from across the filmography to make different thematic points?
Most people know little of Belgium and even less of its French-speaking region of Wallonia. I thought some context at the beginning of the book would help readers understand and appreciate the culture that gave rise to the brothers’ cinema. However, in search of universal meanings their films resolutely transcend a restrictive localism. This places them in an international tradition of auteurist cinema from which they have drawn great inspiration. Since the debate on cinematic realism remains open, I deemed it prudent to engage with it at the outset and to establish a particular place within it for the Dardennes’ work. My chronological approach seeks to clarify the evolution of their work from documentary to tentative fiction to an assured and distinctive style in The Promise and beyond.
The Dardennes’ films are political in many ways: in the choice of subject matter, location, realist aesthetics that avoid “the lure of the melodramatic and the imposition of the doctrinaire,” and even the very deliberate method in which they make their films. In all these ways the Dardennes are challenging the narratives of what we could call late capitalism. This was most apparent when a labor law regulating pay to teenage and casual worker was dubbed “The Rosetta Plan,” named after the titular character of the Dardennes’ 1999 film. Is this the type of political impact that you think can follow from a “responsibly realist” orientation (i.e. non-polemical films that nonetheless stir up people’s political beliefs)?
Yes, I believe it is. The Dardennes powerfully depict how individuals become mired in poverty, unemployment, violence, alienation, etc., and how they try to deal with these issues, but their tight focus on personal trajectories as well as their rigorous control of narrative, dialogue, and mise-en-scène never allows any ideological tub-thumping to enter the frame. Among masterful realists I love Ken Loach’s cinema, but occasionally you sense he slips into a doctrinaire mode. This does not happen with the Dardennes, whose characters, plots, and locations deliver an implicit political message.
The urban landscape, especially those peripheral spaces that Luc Dardennes described as “a landscape of empty devastation,” is so important to the aesthetic of these films. Do you think that the Dardennes could make a rural version of their films? Or, do you think they subscribe to the hypothesis set forth at the beginning of Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution: “Society has become completely urbanized”?
In principle, yes, the Dardennes could go rural and still find appropriate themes and scenarios, but it’s unlikely given their rootedness in an urban environment they know so well. As much as I respect Lefebvre (and cite him in my book), I don’t agree — and I doubt the Dardennes would either — with his statement, which is not to be taken literally, as it would be absurd, but serves as a metaphor for an increasingly urbanized locus of power, influence, and mass communication in society. Realist cinema can work well in rural contexts: for example, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, which captures pitch-perfectly and unsentimentally a poor, demoralized redneck community in the Ozarks.
A professor of mine once opened a course with the cryptic claim that organized crime is the unacknowledged scandal of our times, and we ignore it at our own peril. Reading your book actually gave me a little more clarity on what he might have meant, especially in your discussion of human trafficking (The Promise, The Silence of Lorna, The Child) and the everyday forms of exploitation that follow the breakdown of social cohesion and trust. How important is crime in understanding the desperate situations in which many of the characters find themselves?
Both small- and large-scale crime are very important to an understanding of the Dardennes’ cinema. The influence of Bresson is felt. At the heart of all of the films is an unspoken statement of the causal nexus that draws people on the socioeconomic edge wittingly or unwittingly into criminal activities. Even in Falsch (1986), their only non-realist feature, which is a highly stylized, dislocated, atemporal depiction of the reunion of a German Jewish family, the mass crime of the Holocaust remains a determining factor. The possible exception is Rosetta (1999), though we still witness the petty crime of a young man cheating on his employer as a critical plot element in Rosetta’s own desperate search for work and identity. Other films run the gamut from human trafficking to extortion to drug dealing to murder, but the brothers are careful not to sensationalize any of this criminality for dramatic or visual effect.
You write that “the brothers see themselves as making films about individuals in universal situations: economic hardship, social disintegration, personal isolation, and moral responsibility. They have no need to go beyond their own area to discover people and conditions that pertain to those chosen themes of their films.” Do you think Belgium (and Wallonia in particular) offers specific advantages because of its recent history of deindustrialization, or are the Dardennes pointing to something that works across different settings (i.e. are they articulating here what you mean by “responsible realism”)?
As I mentioned earlier, the deindustrialization of Wallonia coincides with the Dardennes’ biography: young teenagers when the coal mines began to close in the 1960s and young men when the steel mills were shutting down. They are knowledgeable enough to be confident of their own environment as representative of a way of life and a set of social conditions that may be found throughout postindustrial society. This confidence in the universality of their films shows itself paradoxically in their satisfaction in making them at home. Their “responsible” realism has to do with the ethical crises faced by their characters and also with their own suggestion of those characters’ potential for changes to the good. But in their films such a possibility is not limited to members of the underclass of Liège-Seraing in a particular historical juncture; by implication, these are stories of everyman. It is not for nothing that their cinema pays homage to the humanism of a Kurosawa or a Rossellini.
For those like myself who are largely ignorant of Belgian cinema, can you recommend some key films in its history?
Until recently Belgian cinema was virtually unknown outside of French- or Dutch-language regions and sometimes even within Belgium itself, where homegrown products struggle generally to compete with foreign films. A largely artisanal cinema dependent heavily on international coproduction, it has suffered from poor distribution especially in the shadow of the powerful French film industry. Before the 1980s the key auteurist was the late André Delvaux. His exquisitely crafted magic realism — in films from the 1960s and 1970s such as The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short, Rendezvous à Bray, and Belle — is what first drew my attention to the peculiar qualities of Belgian cinema. And during that period the talented and unpredictable Harry Kümel almost offhandedly made Daughters of Darkness, now a lesbian vampire cult classic.
Since the 1980s Belgian directors have become better known and their films more widely distributed. The breakthroughs came with Jaco Van Dormael’s Toto the Hero; the mockumentary Man Bites Dog, made by three novice filmmakers; The Music Teacher and Farinelli by Gérard Corbiau. As a result, in the last twenty years more Belgian films have caught the eye, such as Everybody Famous! by Dominique Deruddere, who nurtured a quirky American connection in his early work; Daens by Stijn Coninx, a powerful and very political period drama; and Bullhead by Michaël R. Roskam, recently nominated for an Oscar. We cannot ignore the work of Chantal Akerman whose uncompromising formalism turned Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles into a staple of structural and feminist cinema. Finally, though copies are even more difficult or impossible to find than features, there is also a strong tradition of Belgian short film, documentary, and animation. Belgium is, after all, the home of Tintin and the Smurfs!