Monday, April 09, 2012

Relative Brilliance: With Six Straight Gems, Belgium's Dardenne Brothers Stand Among the World's Best Movie Directors

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Quite a number of movies in recent years--including some of the most successful and/or acclaimed-- have been created by brothers working in tandem, as writer & director and/or co-directors.

Joel and Ethan Coen are responsible for No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou, Fargo, A Serious Man, The Big Lebowski and a number of other notable films.

Many likely know that Christopher Nolan directed The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Memento and the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises, but were you aware that that his brother Jonathan co-wrote them?

The Wachowski Brothers, Andy and Larry, made the Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta and other films, though seem to no longer technically be brothers as Larry has become Lana. Their upcoming film, Cloud Atlas, is based on a novel my friend Dave really loves.

Check IMDB and you may be surprised by how many familiar movies have been made by the brothers Hughes, Farelly, Weitz, Zucker and Duplass. The Maysles have long been master documentarians and though Ridley and Tony Scott have only directed individually, they have produced films and TV shows in tandem. I was also referenced to the Polish brothers and Taviani brothers, and should mention the Ephron sisters, who have collaborated on You've Got Mail, Michael, Bewitched and more.

Over the last few years--thanks largely to recommendations from Dave, an even more fervid film buff--I've come to know the wonderful work of the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc.

The Dardennes are Belgian and make their films in French. According to IMDB, they have been making documentaries, shorts and narrative movies, together, dating back to 1978. But common consensus seems to cite 1996's La Promesse as their first feature film to garner international attention and acclaim.

Their latest movie is The Kid With A Bike, which is still playing at select theaters in the U.S. 

I saw it recently and very much enjoyed it, as I have all six of their films since La Promesse. Though I only caught wind of the Dardennes' long stellar work in recent years, I've had no trouble seeing all their movies thanks to the excellent World Cinema collection of the Skokie Public Library. Hopefully your local library is comparable, but I've noticed that The Son--my favorite Dardenne Bros. film to date--is on Netflix instant streaming, with Lorna's Silence available as a DVD selection. 

There are certainly similarities that run through the Dardennes' string of six superlative pictures--most revolve around troubled kids and/or low-grade criminals on society's outskirts; some of the same actors have roles in several films--but each stands entirely on its own, so don't feel you need to see them in order of release.

With the possible exception of Ramin Bahrani, no one in recent times has made such richly insightful films about basic humanity; thus the Dardennes' films should be readily understandable--on the surface and  considerably deeper--to any viewers who aren't afraid of subtitles (or are fluent in French).

These are not overly obtuse or abstract "foreign" films. In fact, the look of the movies--and often their storylines--can appear deceptively simple, akin to something a gifted film student might make with a handheld camera. But there is usually no soundtrack music and even a sparsity of sound other than dialogue, which itself is frequently taciturn in favor of unspoken expressiveness. Adding to the naturalism of their films, the Dardennes--who co-produce, write and direct each picture--frequently use only available light.

So if the movies you enjoy must be loud and flashy, with tons of special effects and big explosions, the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne will likely be off-putting, perhaps even boring. You actually have to pay attention for 90 minutes or so without much in the way of diversionary commotion. And don't expect typical Hollywood endings or formulaic feel-good narrative choices transparently determined by test screenings.

But if you can appreciate intimate stories of personal discovery that suggest universal truths about the human condition--not so unlike those found within great novels and plays--you're likely to walk out of the theater (or eject the DVD, close the browser, etc.) with more to think about than many films leave you with.

Yet while these aren't stuffy films by any means, because they're so different from what Hollywood or even independent American directors typically feed us, they might initially be a bit challenging to ingest. But that's OK; some of the best things in life--and art--can take a little time and effort to appreciate, especially if much of their merit comes from unconventionality.

While I would rate all six of these Dardenne movies at least @@@@ on the Seth Saith @@@@@ scale, The Son is the only one that I'd give a perfect score. Yet almost all of them have earned international plaudits and awards that go well beyond my estimable regard. Although I have watched or re-watched each of these movies within the past two weeks, it's not improbable that I would see even greater eloquence upon further exploration and perhaps better acclimation.

But if, like me, you value learning about (often lesser-known) artists who are doing great things in their field of endeavor, you'll be richer for having Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne on your radar. And other screens.

In production order, below are the six très bien films the Dardenne brothers have made since 1996--which have made them among the finest movie directors in the world. Especially as I prefer to let almost all plot points come as a surprise, I won't say much about the stories themselves, which often serve to address larger themes. The awards I cite aren't meant to be comprehensive, so consider this just a basic overview.

  • La Promesse (1996, English: The Promise, but seemingly never officially titled as such) - A teenage boy trapped in his father's criminal world involving the transporting of immigrants is faced with significant decisions of loyalty and integrity after a troubling incident. Among other accolades, La Promesse was named the Best Foreign Language Film by the National Society of Film Critics in the U.S. My rating: @@@@

  • Rosetta (1999) - The title character is a 17-year-old girl living in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother. She battles internal and external turbulence as she tries to find and keep a job she hopes can lift her above her circumstances. Rosetta won the Palme d'Or (the highest prize) at the Cannes Film Festival, where first-time actress Émilie Dequenne was named Best Actress. My rating: @@@@

  • The Son (2002, French: Le Fils) - A man named Olivier (played by Olivier Gourmet, who's in several of these films and won Best Actor at Cannes for his role in this one) teaches woodworking at a training center. His newest student is a teenage boy recently released from prison for having killed Olivier's son. Roger Ebert ranked The Son #7 on his list of Best Films of the Decade. My rating: @@@@@

  • The Child (2005, French: L'Enfant) - A young street thief and his girlfriend have a baby; he sees the child as a moneymaking opportunity and makes some decisions that aren't mutually agreed upon. The Child was the second Dardenne brothers film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. My rating: @@@@1/2

  • Lorna's Silence (2008, French: Le silence de Lorna) - Lorna is a young Albanian living in Belgium. Having arranged a fake marriage for Lorna so that she may obtain her citizenship, a local thug named Fabio is intent on bringing the marriage--to a hardcore drug addict--to a quick end so that he can marry Lorna off to another client. But things get complicated when Lorna comes to care for her husband more than she is supposed to. Lorna's Silence won Best Screenplay at Cannes. My rating: @@@@1/2

  • The Kid with a Bike (2011, now in U.S. theaters, French: Le gamin au vélo) - A young boy resists living in a foster care facility after being abandoned by his father, but encounters a woman who may be willing to care for him if he can avoid getting in his own way. The Kid with a Bike won the Grand Prix (the second most prestigious award) at Cannes. My rating: @@@@1/2

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