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The Dardenne Brothers

The Sleep of the Just


Roberto Rossellini once proposed that neo-realism was a moral movement more than an aesthetic one, and yet contemporary neo-realists like the Dardenne brothers (Luc and Jean-Pierre) would probably see it as both moral and aesthetic. This is a chicken and egg scenario where we can’t easily say whether the moral leads to the aesthetic or the aesthetic to the moral.  In the opening scene of The Child the teenage mum Sonia hammers on the door of the flat her partner has sublet while she’s been in hospital having a baby. The baby is in her arms as she kicks and punches the door. Clearly disturbing the flat’s occupants, we might wonder what it must be doing to a newborn child. Shortly afterwards, crossing the busy road with the newborn, or sitting on the back of a motorbike with the baby and without a helmet, we could muse over whether it is the compassion they feel for this young woman that withholds the harsh judgement other filmmakers would be inclined to practise, or is it the cinematic style that means the judgement can’t easily be offered? There are no reaction shots here to neighbours looking on disapprovingly; no music indicating she is a bad mother, and not even a medium long shot that would contextualize her behaviour within an environment broader than her own immediate frustration.

Since La Promesse, the Belgian brothers have directed a series of films utilising a similar sense of cinematic neutrality. The first couple of films they made are rarely seen and have been viewed by the directors as peripheral to the oeuvre. They were directed in a different manner and with innate obligations or more commercial demands placed upon them. “Falsch…was a play, so we were trying to film a text… With Je Pense a vous, we were surrounded by a very professional crew that told us what to do, and we were shy and didn’t really know what to do. So we listened and thought, “why not? why not?” We didn’t want to put music on the film, but they told us we had to. We had the feeling this movie that we made wasn’t ours.” (Film Ireland) With La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son, The Child, The Silence of Lorna and The Kid with a Bike, they have made six films that have emphasised the close-up, utilised diegetic sound, and used the same location: in or around the Belgian town of Liege. They also frequently use the same actors: Jeremie Renier in La Promesse, The Child, The Silence of Lorna and The Kid with a Bike, Olivier Gourmet in all their films since La Promesse; Fabrizio Rongione in supporting roles in Rosetta and The ChildThe Kid with a Bike and The Silence of Lorna.

The emphasis in their work is shrinking onscreen space as if to avoid the ready presence of judgement. Rather than being put in a position of prompt disapproval, they throw us into scenes that ask of us immediate enquiry. Where are we; what is the character doing; why are they doing it? If Bela Tarr is the great modern filmmaker of aloof cinematic epistemology, the Dardennes are the opposite. If Tarr insists in offering an angle that removes us from the immediacy of a situation as he tracks behind walls, opens a key dialogue exchange on the bar’s pint glasses rather than the characters’ faces, and indicates a malign universe that leaves characters without much control over their existence, the Dardennes usually stay very close to their characters.

The people populating their films are always in the process of doing things. and the Dardennes’ editing strategy is to toss us into the situation.Their protagonists may often be marginal characters involved in illegal activity, but they are energized by their own practical needs. The illegal aspect might be the trading of immigrants as in La Promesse, the fish poaching in Rosetta, the murder and theft in the past that provides vital back story in The Son, or the thieving in The Child, but the emphasis resides in the notion of activity itself. Though Bruno in The Child says that work is for idiots as he dismisses girlfriend Sonia’s idea that he could get a job that pays a thousand Euros a month, through the course of the film he rarely gets the chance to sit down and take it easy. He is one of life’s wheelers and dealers, an ambulating salesman not so much door to door as corner to corner. He doesn’t even get to sit down while buying and selling, and when he eventually purchases a beer and a sandwich the money is grabbed from his hand and he is dragged outside for a kicking: the people to whom he owes money want it back. It is all part of the Dardennes cinema: a kinetic method where almost nobody takes a break.

It is as though the directors want to avoid ready judgement by movement as cinematic form and movement as character purpose. Whatever we think of their characters they are not lazy; and we might muse over all the films that show the fecklessly poor with an eye for the cinematically slothful. Even Mike Leigh’s films suggest perhaps the passing of judgement by the inactivity of the characters within the story. If the Dardennes never give their protagonists the chance to sit down, in Leigh the characters quite often struggle to lift themselves off the couch or out of bed: from the parents in Meantime to the anorexic sister in Life is Sweet. People are more dour than doer in Leigh’s work. His is not at all a cinema of constant motion, no matter the agitation of Johnny in Naked and Hannah in  Career Girls; the Dardennes though are interested in working class lives with working class body language: working class in the sense that they are often people one feels would have worked with their hands and their bodies a generation or two earlier. Liege is an industrial city, and the town where the Dardennes are from and where a number of their films are very specifically set is nearby. The Dardennes’ characters are still industrial people, but often without the jobs that would have been available in the past.

The hand-held aesthetic the Dardennes deploy is of course not new: in the late 1990s it was utilised by von Trier and Vinterberg in Denmark, Wong Kar-wai in Hong Kong and Paul Greengrass in the UK. But few filmmakers have used it with a sense of work’s absence. When the Dardennes talk of Rosetta and the  central character caught in a combat situation where the war is for work rather than for territory, and where one fights with one’s fellow citizens and not with an enemy, they mention needing a form with which to reflect this frenetic competitiveness. “She is a soldier, a survivor who tries everything to escape. Her battle is to find a job.” (The List) “In our mind, we wanted to follow someone like a soldier of war; it is her body and movement which is the boundary and not her environment.” (The List) But the style also indicates a vacuum as well, as they also invoke The Castle by Kafka: Rosetta wants to work as K wants to get into the castle.  She feels locked out of a life she assumes other people are having, and the directors show the title character caught in a tautology: she wants to work because…she wants to work.  Of course she has goals and ambitions, none more so than to get off the caravan site and out of the caravan she shares with her mother. When her mum plants some flowers outside, Rosetta savagely pulls them up saying they won’t be staying at the site so why bother growing anything.

But the emphasis isn’t on Rosetta’s hopes and dreams; more on what amounts to frenetic neurosis. If Leigh’s characters are often neurotically petrified, or domestically driven, the Dardennes show us people who put everything into action, but that the filmmakers make clear is only part of the picture. There is a moment in Rosetta where the title character lies in bed and talks to herself in both the third person and the first person as she says, ‘Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta. You found a job. I found a job. You’ve got a friend. I’ve got a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won’t fall in a rut. I won’t fall in a rut. Goodnight. Goodnight.’ In The Son, the carpenter who has lost his child takes on another boy at the centre where he works, the very boy who was responsible for his son’s death. The film concentrates chiefly on the work being done, with Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) putting into the work his knowledge as a carpenter rather than his grief-stricken feelings, but the feelings are there nonetheless. There are of course great actors whose actions contain emotional resonance to the very detriment of the action they are  enacting. Marlon Brando is a marvellous actor for this very reason: he can caress a cat or a wall, hold a gun or chew on a piece of bread, and insist that the act itself is but a small dimension of the feeling underpinning it. Gourmet is the opposite: if we focused on isolated scenes in The Son we would simply be watching a man trying to get his pupils to put together a wooden hinge properly. The scene wouldn’t indicate a surplus dimension, even though the accumulated effect will inevitably lead us to wonder how he is feeling about this young boy who was involved in a theft that led to his son’s death.

Brando would obviously be of little use in a Dardennes film, and it makes sense that Gourmet works in life as a carpenter as well as an actor: the brothers want the plausible action as readily as the emotionally dramatic. Though they have cast established professionals in their films like Cecile de France in The Kid with a Bike, and Gourmet (who’s appeared in numerous plays by Moliere, Turgenev and others), often they work with people who are new to cinema even if they go on to become established actors: Emilie Dequenne in Rosetta, Jeremie Renier in La Promesse. There might be big emotional scenes in the Dardennes’ work, but often this emotion is sublimated in the specifics of action. Sure, Rosetta more or less breaks down at the end of the film, Bruno likewise in the final scene in The Child. In The Son Gourmet confronts the young boy’s deeds as the kid realizes that Gourmet is the father of the boy he killed. In La Promesse, throughout the film Renier’s Igor  will do anything to please his father, but by the end of the film he has found a mother figure more reliable and honest than his dad, and is finally willing to question his father’s authority. Yet most of the time it isn’t the emotional expression that matters; more the actions that carry the emotional intensity within them. Even when a character is still and pensive, the Dardennes suggest that the thought is pragmatic more than reflective: it is about an immediate problem and not a past concern. There is a moment in The Child where Bruno is standing against a wall early in the film, and we might wonder what he is thinking. But the immediacy with which he answers the phone suggests that all he was thinking about was the person whose call he was waiting on so that he could clinch a deal: a deal admittedly that the film will hinge upon. He has decided to sell his newborn baby. And yet behind all this is a dimension that goes beyond the action itself.

It is as if though there is an aesthetic principle behind the Dardennes’ work that says the action should contain the emotion, and thus whether the actor happens to be a professional or an amateur, the important element is to offer an action with conviction rather than to allow an action to be contained by the feeling. The method here resides not in a Stanislavskian interest in emotion, but more in the arena of task accomplishment. By the end the young boy in The Son should recognize the nature of his deed, but is it that much less important that he is in the process of mastering the art of carpentry? Directors more interested in the feeling over the task might play up the big emotions, but the Dardennes understand that The Son is as much a film about the basics of rehabilitation as the therapeutic release. If the boy escapes the life of crime that his youthful self has embarked upon and been incarcerated over, it will be as much because he has mastered the makings of a dovetail joint as a catharsis achieved. They are conjoined.

In Rosetta this is quite different and yet in other ways quite similar. By the end of the film, the title character’s resourcefulness seems to have run out. As she picks up a gas bottle from the camp owner, she collapses on the ground as she returns to the caravan, and Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), who’s been revving his bike around her every since Rosetta’s betrayal, comes to her aid. Earlier Rosetta has taken Riquet’s job after telling the boss that he has been making his own waffles and selling them on the side. Riquet offered the detail to Rosetta in a moment of complicity, but with so few jobs available, and with Rosetta in need of one, she tells the boss and gets Riquet fired. However, we are unlikely to forget Rosetta’s memo to herself about having a job and having a friend, and not long before getting the gas bottle she phones the boss (Gourmet) and says she won’t be coming back. Has she chosen friendship over work, the acceptance of fatigue over freneticism, or has she failed in the normal life and fallen in the rut? Is her good night, good night not the earlier feeling of potential well-being she proposes to herself, but a darker dusk that could end with her suicide? Robert Bresson’s film Mouchette is numerously name-checked in reviews and analyses of Rosetta (from Sight and Sound to Jonathan Rosenbaum) and Bresson’s film ends with an unequivocal suicide. Rosetta ends on a much more ambiguous note, and even a humanly hopeful one, with Riquet the knight on a shining motorbike as he moves from a person trying to get her to confront her conscience, to someone capable of keeping her from gassing herself into unconsciousness. What remains consistent however is the sense that emotion mustn’t still motion; that the film’s purpose is to remain consistently kinetic up until the film’s conclusion. Just as the now incarcerated Bruno at the end of The Child gets to sit down when he receives a visit from Sonia, so Rosetta gets to fall into a heap when she can’t go on. She might have moments earlier in the film where she lies in bed trying to alleviate her stomach cramps with a hairdryer, but there is no sense of relaxation here: she is horizontally fretful. Even the moment where Rosetta lies in bed and offers her mantra, she is curiously at odds with herself as she works through her head who she is and what she wants.

This is because the notion of rest in the Dardennes’ work is ethical; it is a variation on the sleep of the just: the opportunity to relax one’s conscience after strenuously stretching it beyond one’s capacity to cope. Most of the Dardennes’ characters are decent people caught in bad situations, and the directors are less interested in heroes and villains; more in the villainy within a ‘hero’ as the film’s narrative works through the villainous state to an ethically heroic one. When in one sequence Riquet falls into the river near the caravan park where Rosetta lives, it looks like she will let him drown; only to save him as her conscience gets the better of her. If he had drowned she could have taken his job, but instead takes it less horribly; merely telling the boss about the waffle selling. It is the lesser of two evils, but still an evil, and she remains what we could call the villain of circumstances. She is neither quite the victim of circumstance nor the villain of the piece, but somewhere in between. However, by the end of the film she becomes neither victim nor villain as she faces up to the consequences while falling face down in the mud.  She becomes heroically self-conscious – aware of her human responsibility even if it looks like it could for a moment result in the end of her life.

One sees this of course in other Dardenne films also. It looks like Bruno still hasn’t learnt the error of his ways when after buying back the baby he has tried to sell, he is told he still owes the gangsters, who were doing the deal, five thousand Euros. He promptly involves a schoolkid who steals for him in a theft that goes wrong, and looks like he will leave the boy to take the blame when Bruno escapes and the boy is caught. But instead Bruno goes into the police station and admits his guilt, saying the boy’s innocent. It allows him to break down in the film’s closing scene with Sonia, a moment that echoes Bresson and Rosetta: by what strange route has it taken Bruno to find Sonia, we might wonder, just as Rosetta almost allows Riquet to die as well as stealing his job only to find this young man still appears to be there for her in a moment of need. Just as Bresson’s Pickpocket owed a debt to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment that numerous filmmakers have been  borrowing from since and paying back spiritually (Paul Schrader twice, with American Gigolo and Light Sleeper), the Dardennes add to the spiritual bank balance too.

Both La Promesse and The Silence of Lorna also play up this moral dimension, as the directors again show characters acting against their conscience before confronting their troublesome actions.  Both films also utilise illegal immigration. In La Promesse, fifteen year old apprentice mechanic Igor (Renier) and his father (Gourmet) are trying to buy a house, and trade in immigrants to make that process a little swifter. They also use the immigrants to work on the house. One day though when a couple of immigration officers come round, Igor tells everybody to clear off the roof, and shortly afterwards he finds a dying African who has fallen off it. The man asks Igor to promise to look after his wife and daughter, who have newly arrived in Belgium. It is a request we could easily suppose fifteen year old Igor wouldn’t be able to fulfil. In the opening sequence in the film he does an old lady a small favour but refuses the recompense she offers. He has very promptly fixed a problem with her car but doesn’t accept when she insists to pay him as she struggles to find her purse. We soon realize she isn’t likely to find it as we see  him in the next scene burying the purse from prying eyes. He is a teenage hustler with a father who is halfway between Obi ken Benobi and the Artful Dodger; someone who merely acts like a father figure, because he won’t accept the full responsibilities of parenting when he would much rather teach his son the myriad illegal ways in which he can make money. When Igor calls his father Dad, his father replies that he should call him by his first name Roger

Near the end of the film, after Igor has helped the wife (Assita Ouédraogo), Roger will plead with Igor saying that the boy is his father’s son. Igor’s just been chased round the garage in which he works after Roger angrily attacks the boy for helping the wife to the detriment of their little enterprise, and Igor manages to catch the father’s foot in a winch. As he tugs at the chain as he tries to tug at his son’s heartstrings, Roger’s emotional pleading is too little far too late. Igor has had to grow up very quickly and all on his own, as he finds the ethical wherewithal to fulfil the late husband’s request. Igor is another of the Dardennes’ villains of circumstance who become heroes of their own despairing narrative.

The Silence of Lorna similarly shows a woman who wants to get on in life like other Dardenne characters, and also like many of them believes that doing it illegally is the quickest way to prosperity. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is married to heroin addict Claudy (Renier) in a sham arrangement that after the divorce will allow her to marry another man, which will then give her the money to set up a snack bar with her real boyfriend. However divorces take time, and wouldn’t it be easier to have Claudy overdosing to remove him from the situation? Initially it looks like Lorna will go along with the plan, but changes her mind and asks to wait for the divorce to come through. In this most plotted of Dardenne films there are various permutations to the story, and an ellipsis concerning Claudy’s death, while the ending indicates a character who is not only in greater physical trouble than any other figure in the directors’ work, but also someone who might have found her soul at the cost of her sanity. She insists that she is pregnant and says she will not let the baby die as Claudy has died, but earlier a doctor has told her that she isn’t carrying a child. As she hides in the woods after escaping the man who has obviously been hired to kill her, Lorna is both the directors’ most complex and yet perhaps most contrived character: the one most at the mercy of a higher being that goes by the names of Luc and Jean-Pierre. If all their key films carry a hint of the Bressonian as road to Damascus, here they have decided to offer a more complicated plot structure to find not so much the silence of Lorna but the soul of her. At the end of the film she is the opposite of silent: she is talking to herself, and about, it seems, an imaginary child in her belly. Sadly dismayed at the contrivances at work in the film, Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian reckoned “They have saddled themselves with a tricky plot and it runs aground. A key moment is omitted, and the film-makers appear to believe that, as in cheesy TV cop shows of yesteryear, a tough guy can be easily incapacitated with a single blow to the head with a rock.”

Yet it could be argued that it is a companion piece to La promesse, which in synopsis can also seem like a melodramatic work, with the husband not only dying, but also with a moment where Igor escapes with the wife and the baby as he tells the mother that Roger wants to sell her into sexual servitude in Cologne. The Silence of Lorna is a relative failure, perhaps, but it is yet another Dardenne film that looks for the spirit out of personal hardship and sensory motor activity. In Luc’s words, “It seems to me that there is a material impoverishment which leads the way to a spiritual turmoil.” (Au dos de nos images) How to create characters who have the need to keep on the move but who the filmmakers have to slow down enough so that they can confront their conscience? Much of their work has picked up on the ideas of strivers who, because of the material impoverishment that Luc talks about, get caught in situations which contain within material hope spiritual degradation. They rise in one direction only to fall in another. When Rosetta phones the waffles boss to say she won’t be coming into work anymore, she loses a job but gains a soul, and though this can sound all very abstract, the purpose behind the Dardennes’ work has been to make the problem emotionally very direct. When Rosetta stumbles to the ground, when Bruno starts to cry in The Child, and Igor likewise, after a hug he offers has been rejected by the African woman in La Promesse, the Dardennes have made an emotional mark through balancing the material and the spiritual.

Yet if we are slightly reluctant to see them as part of a spiritual cinema to which Bresson, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Dumont, Reygadas and others belong, it resides in the sense one has that the material limitations and the emotional release are at least as important as the soulful dimension. It is as if the soul is lower case in their work; higher case in the other directors. When the Dardennes and Bruno Dumont took the main awards at Cannes for Rosetta and L’humanite in 1999, it made sense that the awards for Rosetta were deemed acceptable and the ones for L’humanite dismissed. It was the difference between a lower and higher case approach to the soulful in cinema, with the Dardennes grounding theirs in a plausible milieu, and Dumont invoking a world that was slightly out of synch. One needn’t defend the experimentation of the latter over the concreteness of the former. However, it is to acknowledge that films dealing with ‘soulful’ questions within the context of a believable narrative and social world are likely to possess a more immediate impact and less disdainful reaction.

This is perhaps finally because the Dardennes are drawing on what we can call a social ontology rather than a metaphysical ontology. One uses ontology here in something close to its every day sense, as the radical psychotherapist R. D. Laing adopted it during the sixties onwards, saying “despite the philosophical use of ‘ontology’ (for Heidegger, Sartre, Tillich, especially), I have used the term in its present empirical sense because it appears to be the best adverbial or adjectival derivative of ‘being’.” (The Divided Self) The Dardennes thus want to make films that might allude to the very problems of the soul that Tarkovsky, Dumont and others magnify, but to remain within the realm of ready practicalities. There is nothing inexplicable about Bruno or Igor’s tears, Rosetta’s collapse, and even Olivier’s forgiveness in The Son. They can all be contained within the socially acceptable need for work, warmth, love and that we do unto others as others would have done unto us. The closest to an exception to this is The Silence of Lorna, where the elliptical death of Claudy and the conclusion where Lorna thinks she has a baby in her belly do invoke the inexplicable, and indeed some of the criticisms Bradshaw throws at The Silence of Lorna, aren’t very different from attacks on Dumont’s L’humanite. When Bradshaw frets over the “tangled “high concept” storyline, a contrived ending and a vital, climactic event that bafflingly happens offscreen. (The film-makers have called it an “ellipsis”.)”, it resembles Nick James’s Sight and Sound comments on Dumont’s work:”the film asks us to invest in a police story enacted at a snail’s pace by a dim-witted character who would never be appointed to the police force of any nation (it may be that we’re watching a murderer’s guilt-assuaging fantasy of a righteous life – “It’s up to you”, said the sulky Dumont).” They even share a filmmaker quote in parenthesis. In both examples Bradshaw and James have an idea in their head of good craft and verisimilitude, and the films fail to meet the requisite expectations. But if we accept there are films given to the social ontology or the metaphysical ontology, we can better place the directors within a set of expectations that aren’t hampered by a priori critical assumption, but instead closer to filmmaker intention. The Silence of Lorna shows the Dardennes moving towards a more abstract metaphysical cinema that a director like Dumont constantly places himself within, and if we feel that L’humanite is a far greater film than The Silence of Lorna, this is merely to say that Dumont is a more interesting director of the metaphysically ontological; the Dardennes of the ontologically social. The Dardennes work best it seems when staying close to the notion of being contained by social problems; Dumont, in films like La vie de Jesus and Hors Satan where the social is contained by broader metaphysical questions.

Yet the mistake in looking at the Dardennes’ work would be to assume that they are not concerned with ontological questions at all. By the end of each film it is as if a question has been addressed that is of far greater magnitude than the apparent narrative might initially seem to offer. Thus whether the subject happens to concern a man’s death (as in La Promesse), a son’s murder (The Son), a waffle job the central character is desperate to have (Rosetta), a child sold off (The Child) or, as in The Kid with a Bike, a child abandoned by his father, the directors assume that what matters is less the enormity of the subject, than the possible ethical questioning contained within. The Kid with a Bike focuses on Cyril’s need for his father’s love, but is also intrigued by the moral issue of a boy going off the rails after robbing a newsstand. Cyril and the newsstand owner come to an agreement after mediation, but the newsstand owner’s son wants revenge and goes after Cyril. Hiding up a tree Cyril falls out of it and the father and son discuss the story they will tell the police about what they think is Cyril’s death, only for the boy to get up and walk away. In the Dardennes’ work whether the drama is large or small, the potential magnitude in dramatic form is given no greater significance than the ethical question that comes out of the situation. Thus there are robberies, near deaths, murders, people falling off scaffolding and out of trees in the Dardennes’ work, and yet the Dardennes are not at all melodramatic filmmakers because the melodramatic dimension is less great than the ethical issue contained within. When Cyril falls out of the tree what intrigues is not the action of the fall but the permutations involved. The father and son as victims quickly become the culpable as they stand around thinking up a story that will leave them legally innocent. It isn’t the possibility that Riquet is drowning, but even more the idea that Rosetta will let him drown. It isn’t that a baby will be sold off in The Child, but that the father will sell his new born infant. It is the morally repercussive aspect that fascinates the directors and this is partly why we invoke the notion of a social ontology. It is as though there are certain actions that appear to contribute to the erosion of the being of man. An accidental death does not do this (nor even initself does a robbery and a murder necessarily do it) when compared to a casual betrayal of a waffle seller, or not immediately coming to the rescue of a drowning man. What we see in such instances is the erosion of being, of man as a moral animal.

Thus when we proposed initially that the Dardennes work is one in which we can’t easily say if it is first and foremost aesthetic or moral, we can perhaps resolve it by claiming that, because they are interested in a social ontology, they need to find a form within which conventional notions of morality cannot quite be answered by a conventional aesthetic approach. They insist on the immediacy of observation meeting the abstract demands of an ontological stance that always assumes there is a bigger question than the givens of the event. When Bruno sells the baby it is horrific, but our horror is not so much judgemental; it allows instead for an awareness of the incremental: of the steady erosion of an ethical universe. One doesn’t simply reject Bruno as a character the way one knows no identificatory place is expected of us in relation to a film’s villain. It is that we want to accept the character and reject the action. Equally when Rosetta tells the boss about Riquet’s waffle selling, we are horrified by the betrayal because we are on Rosetta’s side and sense that Riquet is someone she could benefit from having in her life. But while these concerns with character are of course not negligible, they still seem secondary to the ethical question that utilises characters like Bruno and Rosetta for this specifically ontological end.  When the brothers talk about The Silence of Lorna they do so within this social ontology, saying in an interview with Damon Smith: “Yes. We wanted to see in the character of Lorna somebody who, even though she helps Claudy and wants to save him and all that, still doesn’t talk to him. She keeps silent. She could have told him what was going to happen and said, “Let’s run away together.” But she didn’t. Even though she doesn’t kill him, she still feels the guilt. And I think the child that she invents for herself comes from that guilt. You could say that it’s a kind of madness.” “So in a way, this fake child that she creates at the end is a way for her to connect with a greater humanity.” (Reverse Shot) They also link their approach here to the form, believing that because they saw Lorna as a less transparent character than others in their work, they wanted to keep a greater distance, not move in so close.

However, it also connects to a broader question linking their work than whether the characters happen to be pellucid or opaque. As Luc says, invoking philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “ I think that person looking back at us forbids us from killing. The face of the Other is the part of the Other that is the weakest, and it’s also the part that invites us to murder. That’s how I understand Levinas’s work. The fact that killing is forbidden is something our characters live with in the film, but it’s very different from the reality of life. Levinas says that at some point, it is the Other’s gaze, the other person looking at us, who calls to us in order not to die.” (Reverse Shot) Whether this takes the form of acknowledging a promise after someone’s death as in La Promesse, finally saving Riquet from the river in Rosetta, or acknowledging one’s involvement in another’s demise in The Silence of Lorna, there is in various manifestations the idea of the other’s gaze.  The characters, whether transparent or otherwise, are always being looked at with a certain type of concern.

It is finally perhaps this gaze of another as both formal property and thematic purpose that distinguishes the Dardennes’ work. The removal of the reaction shot, the absence of non-diegetic music, the refusal to contextualize even when the camera moves further back in The Silence of Lorna, all contribute to the absence of immediate assumption. The films seem to be looking out at us, daring us to judge, as if asking from what position do we feel capable of making such a judgement. Judgement does not belong to the viewer who can judge from the distance of the just, but from a position very close to the errant. It is this combination of formal appropriateness and a social ontology that can push cinema forward. As they insist: “In other words, he’s in a situation where he has to do this, and the question is whether he’s going to be able to turn things around and resist or not. In a tragedy, everything is pushing the main character in one direction, and the question is will he able to turn around? That’s how tragedies work. The events unfold and force a character in one direction toward death until the end, when at the last minute he or she will understand what’s happening.”  (Reverse Shot)

Thus to return to our initial point, one does not judge Rosetta, Bruno or Igor’s behaviour; we instead are the gaze of another upon their destiny. We are implicated in their fate because we know also, in some way, it happens to be ours too, and that their escape from this fate isn’t the narrow catharsis of a character we idly care about within the story, but a broader ethical release that has staved off the erosion of one’s ethos.


©Tony McKibbin