What is it that makes the Dardenne brothers' work so fresh? Can we not say their oeuvre is the analysis of ethical significance within the context of a material necessity? We can see then how La Promesse and Rosetta are fascinated by a notion of a personal code out of an ethical dilemma. In Rosetta we're asked whether a job of work is more important than a moral value. In La Promesse we're asked to wonder whether the notion of a father saving for a house with his son is more important than the ethical sacrifices he's willing to make to get that home.
But the Dardennes also invoke Robert Bresson. In Bresson. the spiritual gesture is more obviously theological but its fundamental meaning similar; for the central issue in both filmmakers' work is the presence of grace. In the Dardennes grace comes with the acceptance of material limitation, or at least the limitations within the centrality the material world has on the characters' world: that a job and a home can't give meaning but only purpose. In Bresson purpose is often at one with grace: it's often a suicidal drive towards meaning. Hence we have Mouchette being mistreated by everyone she meets in the film of the same title as she moves towards her own death; while in The Devil, Probably the central character wants to die because the world is a polluted chaos ruled by evil forces. It is the difference between a material ethics, as presented in the Dardennes, and a spiritual theology, evident in Bresson. The Dardennes are fascinated by characters on the social brink who find a sense of ethical purpose within a position where it's easily negatable. Bresson wants his characters to negate this world, whatever their status within it, for a curiously 'higher' calling. Even in The Son, the Dardennes turn the father's grieving into material form: Olivier may have lost his child to the very boy, Francis, he now trains as a carpenter's apprentice - but it's as if the only way Olivier and Francis can find their respective souls is through the work. That it's through the specifics of Olivier teaching the boy and the boy's willingness to learn in the wake of Olivier forcing Francis to confront his conscience that releases the 'soul'. The moving moment comes not with a hug, but when the boy picks up a plank of wood to place onto the truck.
Cinematically the Dardennes and Bresson's style are very different. Bresson looks for the cut, as if fragmenting his beings into spiritual entities, as if to suggest each character is less than the sum of his material parts and more the sum total of his spiritual purpose. Thus in Bresson, fragmented shots of hands, midriffs and feet are common. The Dardennes settle for longer, hand held shots where the fragmentation comes not from authorial intent, so much as individual purpose. We see it again in The Son where the camera diligently follows Olivier from place to place, from one job of work to another. If Bresson's characters move as if controlled by a higher being - be that Bresson or God, thus the automaton quality critics often talk about - in the Dardennes the camera tracks and follows the scurrying energy of its characters. In Bresson the figures move at the appropriate pace for the soul - one thinks of Antonioni's comment about characters moving too fast for their souls - in the Dardennes the soul must work hard to catch up with the pace of the characters' being.
This is maybe most especially relevant to The Son, where Olivier employs Francis to work with him. For much of the film there's a kind of mutual denial through material necessity, as Olivier teaches Francis about the basics of carpentry. Thus the notion of spiritual meaning in the Dardennes almost hits the characters by surprise. When Olivier's wife asks why he's employing the murderer of their child, Olivier says he just doesn't know. This is why the Dardennes are great filmmakers of the contraries of purpose and meaning, and why their hand-held cinema has a realist - as opposed to brilliantly formalist, Bressonian - spiritual significance. Purpose is one's place within the world, the sort of world Kierkegaard talks about when he says "to lack possibility means that everything has become necessary or that everything has become trivial." To live by necessity - the sort of material necessity forced upon the leading characters in both La Promesse and Rosetta - is to risk living without possibility. In the possible lies a reflective, constantly evolving self; in necessity lies the self denying reflection for the immediacy of action. Thus the Dardennes are great filmmakers of busyness finally punctuated by the possibility of a spiritual calm: Rosetta collapsing on the ground at the end of the film; Igor finally forcing his father to confront himself near the conclusion of La Promesse; Olivier and Francis recognizing their respective souls at the end of The Son: Olivier his forgiveness, the boy his culpability.
Bresson never really had any truck with neo-realism (and the Bressonian influenced Bruno Dumont has talked about his problem with Bresson's lack of interest in social milieux) but it's absolutely central to the Dardennes as they reinvigorate simultaneously Bressonian theologocal austerity and neo-realist poverty. Of course critics have suggested a lineage between Pascal and Bresson, Kierkegaard and Dreyer, but what is central to this line of thought is the notion of material comfort rejected for a spiritual furtherance. There is Pascal's comment: "The easiest conditions to live in from the world's point of view are the hardest from that of God; and vice versa. Nothing is so hard from the world's point of view as the religious life, while nothing is easier from that of God." Then there is Kierkegaard's "...the dread in a spiritless person is recognizable precisely in his spiritless sense of security." The idea of the easy life or security has no place in the Dardennes' world. The spiritual doesn't come out of an arbitrary gesture, but out of immanent need, a need which the basic conventions of 'psychological realist' cinema can't provide. What they suggest is that Kierkegaard's notion of necessity becomes not a spiritual conceit but an awareness of necessity as a fundamental need, yet grace nevertheless being a still greater one. What the Dardennes take is the Orwellian line about one having no thoughts about revolution until one has food in one's belly, inverts it, and applies it to the spiritual. They wonder whether there is a hunger within us as strong, if not stronger, than that in our stomachs. They're fascinated by the 'practically transcendent'. This is clear in The Son, where the boy feels he's served his sentence and that he's now a free man. But the film suggests that something else must free him - after all he's still on medication to help him sleep: that he must move from the practical to the spiritual.
We could say one of the problems with realist cinema of course is its appeal to necessity, that what it offers is a narrative and characterisational pragmatism demanding characters overcome tangible problems. And, yes, while Bresson occasionally focused on poverty - in Mouchette, say - he was chiefly interested in illustrating the world's ills over Mouchette's, as if her suicide at the end of the film was inevitable not because of her specific situation, but due a wider spiritual absence. The Dardennes' interest isn't in questioning necessity in the wider spiritual sense of Bresson and Dreyer, but in internalising the necessary and the possible: making them a question of the possible versus the material in the immediate sense. This is partly how they return the question of spirituality back to a sensory motor linkage, to an immediate and 'plausible' cause and effect. One of the central ideas in Kierkegaard, present in The Sickness Unto Death for example, is the notion that 'the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.' In building themselves an identity based on, or without, conventional Christianity, people lack the 'eternally firm', the act of faith that takes us beyond sin and virtue, to the beyondness of belief. When Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time Image examines this search for the eternally firm in a certain type of cinema, he talks about the way "sensory motor situations have given give way to pure optical and sound situations to which characters, who have become seers, cannot or will not react, so great is their need to 'see' properly what there is in the situation."
This is clearly Charles' problem in The Devil, Probably, where he wants to die not for any intrinsic, clearly motivated reason, but for the wider malaise already mentioned. Charles' situation is one he faces, even pursues; in Rosetta, the problem is one of denying, rather than amplifying, the problem. When a thumbnail review says of Bresson's film that it 'is unable to find a suitable motive,' what the reviewer means is that the linkage between cause and effect is too tenuous. What Bresson wants to show is the gesture of the 'eternally firm' against the ephemerality of a society given over to the immediate and the short term. To buy into Bresson's film is an act of faith rather than reason, because the 'reason' - if we accept the significance of the eternally firm - lies within the act of faith. So while Charles searches out the eternally firm; Rosetta acts as if it doesn't exist. What exists for her, as for the father in La Promesse, and initially for his son, is the materially necessary, but what the Dardennes want to show is the appearance of something resembling the eternally firm coming out of the too immediately materialist: out of the limitations of necessity, as they show necessity isn't enough. While Nick James in Sight and Sound may believe that the tension in The Son comes from whether Olivier will avenge his son's death, more important, surely, is the idea of necessity giving way to the spiritual. When Kierkegaard suggests that the profound movements of the soul disarm psychology we see where the Dardennes are coming from, without simply reiterating Kierkegaard's position. For if psychology generally belongs to the realm of necessity, and finds its faith in materialist reason, the spirit finds its meaning tautologically: in faith in faith - in the immaterial, even in the inexplicable.
Thus for the young characters in La Promesse and Rosetta the notion of denial takes on a curious, almost but never quite transcendent psychological form. What one denies is not what is loosely defined as 'reality', as psychologists would have it, but one denies something that is in fact intangible - they have to confront something beyond 'denial as reality'; they have to confront denial of something beyond, and have to confront this denial of the beyond from a position of material poverty that removes the rarefication of the Dreyer/Bresson tradition.
This is, then, a complex emotional equation that takes us very far away from conventional social realism, but gives to the 'cinema of the seer', as Deleuze would describe the cinema of Dreyer and Bresson and others, a significant tangibility. Often in the cinema of the seer the event lies in the past, and the present merely hints at its presence. This is evident for example in the importance of '68 in Garrel's Le vent de la nuit, the National Socialist past and the splicing of Germany in two in Kings of the Road, in the way events are not only in the past, but also only partially in the history of the individual. The magnitude of the event in some way incapacitates the central characters: they may have fully formed consciousnesses, but they can't act because the consciousness can see that the situation is far greater than their capacity to act within it.
In the Dardennes' films the position is reversed. The situation remains modest, but the consciousness is still burgeoning, and the film's focus, even we might say its sensory motor linkage, comes with the way the consciousness catches up with the 'modest magnitude' and possibly or definitively acts. Thus Igor In La Promesse realises he must tell the woman whose husband has died where her husband has been buried, and Rosetta, perhaps, comes to see that any belief in a job must be secondary to her belief in a human being.
The Dardennes, from this perspective, help break new ground on two fronts: they give a very profound spiritual meaning to realism, and they give tangibility to the cinema of the seer. But they also do so by absorbing neo-realism, by taking neo-realism further by taking a step back. Instead of moving further into the abstract and meditative as Rosellini did as he attempted to give ontological significance to characters' lives, the Dardennes become even more immediate. In Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, the young German boy who kills his sick father as an act of mercy, combined with Nazi ideology, takes his own life. He does so because the magnitude of the situation is both greater than his soul can bear, and greater than his youthful mind can comprehend. He initially acts as Rosetta acts: within a framework of necessity that cannot see the variables of ethical exigencies, but in the wake of the incident these variables would seem to work into his soul and demand he kill himself. To some degree he is justified in doing so, if we think of the irrevocable nature of the action combined with this burgeoning awareness of the situation. He can't act because the action he's already taken is greater than any subsequent action short of taking his own life. If Rosetta were to kill herself in the wake of betraying her friend, we could see the suicide as absurd: why take her own life when she's barely ruffled the life of another? And yes, while her own trailer park existence, with her alcoholic mother lacking will-power and purpose, may be despairing, that despair nevertheless doesn't have the encompassing misery Edmund sees in Germany Year Zero when he spends the last section of the film before his demise witnessing and absorbing a broader helplessness in the rubble strewn city. What Rosetta requires is to grasp the weight of the situation, and maybe her developing consciousness and her possible awareness of the horrible but finally rather minor betrayal allows her to live. That is, she can act in the awareness that the subsequent decision taken is of no greater magnitude than the preceding action - the decision can envelop the action. Even in The Son, where one could assume the boy's action is as great as the boy's in Germany Year Zero, there's still this need to show the decision enveloping the action. By making Olivier forgive and the boy accept his culpability, this two-fold crystallization is manifested in the simple continuation of a job of work. At the end of the film Olivier and Francis load planks of wood onto the truck - leading to an enveloping of the action. No matter the seriousness of the action, the action can still be grasped and contained.
It is in the way the decision can envelop the action that proves the central difference between Rossellini's film and the Dardennes' work. In Germany Year Zero the action envelops the decision. Edmund feels himself trapped by his action, and the more consciousness he develops the more he sees the inevitability of his demise. This is where neo-realism - and the significant presence of the milieu's effect - shades into the seer cinema Rossellini would pursue so rigorously in films like Stromboli and Voyage to Italy, where the individual decision seems affected not just by the milieu - by space - but also by memory: by time. Rossellini, in pursuing so rigorously a time-space image, had to move away from neo-realism because time became at least as important as space. One was no longer simply swamped by milieu but also by memory, so that Katherine in Voyage to Italy is haunted by this strange world of Naples she finds herself in, the historical past she sees around her, from museum visits, to catacombs, to a visit to Mt Vesuvius and its legacy, and also the memory of a young admirer who is no longer alive, and who was stationed during the war not far from where she's now staying. And for this purpose the less necessity in the action, the more possibility in the characters. Not necessarily of course in Kierkergaardian sense, but in terms of sights and sounds one can react to without having to react to any of them. It is true that such characters lack decisiveness: there is no pressing decision to be made, but much possible stimuli to which one can respond.
In the Dardennes this isn't the issue - necessity remains central, with the possible 'merely' necessity's shadow-consciousness, even when the necessary has an air of busyness over the essential. Some of Rosetta's actions, like catching fish in the local stream, and changing in the forest, seem as much obscure personal rituals as necessary actions, but they are contributions to her perceived necessity; where in seer cinema the personal quirk functions very differently: it is idiosyncrasy as meditative retreat. For example, Katherine's excursions in Voyage to Italy, Serge's return to sites from his past in Le vent de la nuit . In the Dardennes the possible is, in fact, a form of the necessary, for the idea of sights and sounds to which one can possibly respond to in the seer cinema is in Rosetta the sound to which the central character is expected to respond. When the waffle seller follows Rosetta after her act of betrayal, he constantly revs his motorbike as if insistently demanding she listens to her conscience. And the waffle seller does so not simply because he finds her action unforgivable, but more especially because it is forgivable. Her denial of the action seems out of proportion to the action, and all the waffle seller really wants to do is convince her of her fallibility so that she can also then see its relative insignificance.
But it's not the insignificance of the action that really interests the Dardennes. After all, in La Promesse a man has died, and the father and son bury him in cement. What matters is whether one can act within the situation. In both films the characters can act decisively if they so choose. When the dead man's wife insistently asks if Igor knows what has happened to her husband, this isn't an epistemological problem the way we might define it in relation to seer cinema: of not knowing how to act because the event is too complex, or too impersonal; it's chiefly an issue of acting in good faith. Igor merely needs enough consciousness to see what decision he must make. He is not caught in situations which, as Deleuze says of seer cinema, "outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action. He records rather than acts... prey to a vision, pursued by it or pursuing it, rather than engaged in an action." In the Dardennes this isn't applicable because of the readily explicable: there is no deeper situation out of frame or beyond the diegesis to which the characters must respond. Or rather that the deeper decision lies within some notion of the eternally firm - not at all in the complexity of the world that outstrips one's capacity to act, but in something deeply embedded in the situation that has to be excavated. Thus Rosetta seems to move towards the idea that her action was not so much necessarily wrong as right within the narrowest of contexts, and that when the context broadens the absurdity of destroying a friendship for the purposes of low-paid work may begin to reveal itself. But by the same token, there is absurdity at the other extreme: the idea that she should commit suicide in the wake of the incident. If Bresson incorporates the absurd - the mainstream critics' comment about Bresson being unable to find a suitable motive - it's as if the Dardennes are looking for the purposeful: the right decision in the circumstances. Just as in La Promesse Igor must weigh-up opposing value systems,with the dead man's wife insisting Igor tells her what happened to her husband on the one hand, and where Igor's father's belief that Igor should have faith in him on the other, so Rosetta must decide, on the variables within the situation, what she ought to do. This is a realism that remains within the psychological - that eschews we could say Kierkegaard's comment about the movement of the soul disarming psychology - but it's a psychology of choice from a social position often given over to the inevitable, and seen from the perspective of teenage characters for whom such ethical decision making would usually be too complex a process for them to act.
This neo-realist aspect that can be traced back to Germany Year Zero also incorporates other recent films, most especially Ratcatcher and La Vie de Jesus. But where Lynne Ramsay's film and Bruno Dumont's film retain elements of Germany Year Zero's sense of crisis greater than the characters' consciousness - still remain permeated by a sense of a situation bigger than the characters can comprehend - it's as if the Dardennes want to make consciousness and action of equal magnitude, without making action the immediate consequence of thought: the sort of immediacy Deleuze talks about when saying, "the cinema of action depicts sensory motor situations: there are characters, in a certain situation, who act, perhaps very violently, according to how they perceive the situation. Actions are linked to perceptions and perceptions develop into actions." In the Dardennes there is both the sensory motor aspect in the sense of a situation that one can contain and act upon, but there's also something beyond the sensory motor in that the consciousness can't quite yet see the situation clearly enough to act upon it, and that when the characters do begin to develop enough consciousness to act they realize that it comes at a certain materialist price: that issues of property and jobs mingle with ethical decision making.
So we can see that the Dardennes absorb several different strands of cinema that makes a mockery of any idea that they're simply in the realist tradition. They've taken on board neo-realism and a theological bent that moved increasingly away from the possibility of action, and returned to the possibility of acting without resorting to conventional cause and effect. This is an important development, because it gives to the cinema of youth an allusive subjectivity that eschews unreliable narrators and children as seers unable to act. It gives to realism, also, a hint of spirituality, and suggests, finally, that out of this spirituality the sacrifice needn't in any way be abstract but instead curiously immediate - immediate in the sense of on the edge of consciousness's reach, where so many of these decisions reside for all of us.
© Tony McKibbin