The Cinema Dardenne


Rosetta, ARP Sélection, 1999

by R.D. Crano

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne,
by Joseph Mai,
Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 156 pp.

Since the Dardenne brothers first broke onto the international cinema scene with La promesse (1996) a decade and a half ago, their work has enjoyed immense critical acclaim and an encouraging degree of popular success, garnering two Palme d’Ors at Cannes (for Rosetta (1999) and L’enfant (2005)) and launching the careers of several wonderfully gifted “non-actors” (Jérémie Renier, Emilie Dequenne, and Olivier Gourmet, to name but a few). Joseph Mai’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is the first English-language monograph on the brothers, and as such is a welcome contribution to contemporary European cinema scholarship. More specifically, its publication is indicative of a rapidly growing academic interest in the Dardennes’ ethically and emotionally charged style, which Mai explicates with great care and, in some of the book’s most poignant moments, elegantly juxtaposes to the banal, high-gloss filmmaking that dominates late-capitalist culture.

Organized chronologically, Mai’s book opens with a patient, stagesetting exploration of the Dardennes’ youthful documentary projects and early, decidedly immature, forays into fiction filmmaking. In these pages, Mai dutifully identifies nascent manifestations of certain motivations and themes that come to flourish in the brothers’ later films: attachment to place, specifically to the industrial city of Seraing (their longtime home) and the river Meuse; commitment to the social and economic welfare of the working class; dedication to the Levinasian ethical imperative of face-to-face and dialogic engagement with the Other; and deep regard for the tactile properties, textures, and weights of the bodies and objects on screen. Here he neatly catalogues the career-spanning technical tropes that define the Dardennes’ style – their “rhythmic editing” composed almost entirely of long, absorbing sequence shots joined by abrupt cuts. Finally, in the first third of the book, we are also introduced to many of the cinematic influences which resurface throughout the Dardennes’ career, ranging from the obvious (Bresson and Rossellini) to the unexpected (Capra and Hawks). These latter serve as pleasant surprises in an otherwise conventional – which is not to say insignificant – academic undertaking.

Moving beyond cinematic predecessors, Mai highlights the brothers’ youthful collaborations with people like radical Italian theater director Armand Gatti and the Belgian playwright Jean Louvet, providing a concise, well-rounded picture of the intellectual and cultural milieu from which the Dardennean cinema emerges. Socioeconomic context, with regard to subject matter as well as to directorial methods and cinematographic techniques, is also of vital importance. Mai lucidly explains the perpetual feedback loop that the Dardennes have engendered between the content of their films and their chosen mode of cinematic production. As socially estranged and morally alienated characters turn towards in each other in a gesture of love, there is “an analogous turn away from directorial ‘control’ toward collaboration and mutual commitment” (xiv). The “middle-budget” filmmaking that the brothers have arguably perfected thrives on networked creative practices that directly condition the final output of their labour. In like measure, they are able to carve out space for “transformative” spectatorial experiences; theirs are, for Mai, not “films viewers love, just films that love viewers” (xv).

From their “militant” documentaries and earliest fiction works through their most recent Le silence de Lorna (2008), the Dardennes remain driven by a deep desire “to represent, with emotional intensity, history in the present,” in all of its “thickness […] as it is imposed on individual subjectivities” (xi, 37). The toll of oppressive social and economic configurations, in their films, is incorporated into the bodies and behaviours of characters that struggle to subsist in the social periphery. The point where the past impinges on the present – actualized in the form of an individual body and its mode of relating to other bodies in the world around it – is also the point of intersection between the personal and the political. For Mai, this is almost exclusively a matter for ethical thinking, and it is Emanuel Levinas, we discover, who is in fact the true star of the Dardennean oeuvre.

According to Mai’s narrative, which follows closely Luc and Jean- Pierre’s own critical self-assessment, the crucial turning point in the brothers’ career comes on the heels of two disappointing attempts at feature-length fiction – Falsch (1986) and Je pense à vous (1992). Despite working with many of their favorite motifs, these premature efforts failed, on formal grounds, to ethically frame their actors. Only with La promesse would they fully realize the means of “determining space by that which fills it.” Further, these early fictions were plagued by producer interference and the lack of any genuine communal bond among cast and crew. After these self-avowed mistakes, the brothers determined to fund their own films and establish closer, longstanding relationships with the various members of their production team.

Le Silence de Lorna, 2008

The remainder of Mai’s book is devoted to the simultaneous explication and unabashed veneration of the films that follow. Rather than rehash his already succinct analyses, which are in themselves a pleasure to read, I will use this space to elaborate a few general comments from the perspective of film-philosophy.

In its scope and its tone, Mai’s book reads more or less like an intellectual or filmographic biography of the Dardennes. This comes largely at the expense of in-depth philosophical engagements with anyone not explicitly referenced by the Dardennes themselves. There is a ubiquitous, if largely unstated, rejection of “Theory” in Mai’s writing that is often refreshing, but just as often regrettable. On the one hand, he is able to offer astute scene analyses and discuss the technical minutiae of film production without getting distracted by esoteric abstractions. On the other hand, however, many of his most poignant claims would only stand to gain from more rigorous conceptual framings, especially when assessing the social and political aspects and intentions of the Dardenne’s work. To this end, there are moments in the book, not entirely infrequent, that fail to resonate to their full potential. For example, Giorgio Agamben’s increasingly influential genealogy of the figure of homo sacer would be particularly useful in Mai’s reading of Le fils (2002) as “an exploration of how to keep ethics from spiraling into sacrifice” (95). Claims about the brothers’ obsession with vehicular tracking shots could beneficially mine the work of, say, F.T. Marinetti or Paul Virilio, among others. Those about the function of relational speeds in L’enfant, where “wider perspective produc[es] […] an excruciating slowness” (104), detrimentally ignore Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rich analyses of the topic.

Perhaps Mai’s theoretical shortcomings can be attributed to his unswerving obedience to authorial intent, his refusal to stray from the corpus of texts directly cited by the Dardennes in interviews and especially in Luc’s shooting diary, published in 2008 as Au dos de nos images, 1991-2005. Too often, it seems, Mai contents himself with citing Luc’s citations or relying solely on secondary readings rather than actually going back to source materials, for example in the case of the Sartrean undertones of the brothers’ latest work (116) or their personal and professional interest in the utopianism of philosopher Ernst Bloch (23-4). There is something troubling about this sort of dogged adherence to the masters’ stated influences, something that vaguely contradicts the genuinely collaborative spirit of both their filmic recreations and their “middle budget” mode of production. But more troubling still are the few moments when Mai fails even to clearly perceive these influences. One particularly glaring omission occurs in the book’s opening pages, in Mai’s detailing of certain of the Dardennes’ militant documentary tropes and techniques. Their interest in the dialectical relationship between image and text, their ironic treatment of archival footage, and their frequent utilization of a “pedagogical voiceover” all transparently recall the film work and theoretical writings of Guy Debord – a fertile connection if ever there was one, but one that Mai entirely, inexplicably disregards. In a most curious passage, he recounts the brothers’ formation in 1974 of a social video workshop they named Collectif Dérives: “The word dérives […] refers to ‘wandering,’ or drifting, […] but it also evokes more post-1968 libertarian thought – the brothers have said that they took the concept form the Situationist International group. If so, it should be noted that drifting in their sense comes from an opposite direction from the Situationists’ more famous notion of détournement…” (8). Questions of retrospective “fame” aside, minimal research into the Situationist movement (1957-72) reveals their pioneering platform of “psychogeography” and concomitant practice of urban dérive to be among their most frequently discussed lines of thought, and, by all accounts, far from “opposed” to either the Dardennean usage of the term or the Situationist International’s own practice of détournement. (Adding to this reader’s great perplexity, Debord and the Situationists remain likewise absent from last year’s summative anthology Committed Cinema: The Films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.)

Mai’s reading is at its best in its attention to the tactile qualities of the visual image, and in its meticulous elaboration of the Dardennes’ stylistic departures from mainstream filmmaking. A scene of “pure anguish and paralysis” in Rosetta would in a more typical film have been “the stuff of romantic comedy” (75). “Sudden bursts of violent action” in L’enfant strike us as utterly tragic where they would otherwise be played for suspense. In a world where each Hollywood film is, legally speaking, a self-contained corporation, the Dardennes seek to “transform the theater into an ethically charged space” in which spectators and characters can interface in radically unprecedented ways (118). This is achieved not through any sort of Brechtian alienation-effect, but, on the contrary, by absorbing us into the affective dimensions of each character’s life.

Dialectically opposed to the motives, modes of production, aesthetics, and marketing tools of corporate cinema, the Dardennes’ art remains suffused with uncompromising ethical intentions, which Mai emphasizes to the point of sounding, at times, somewhat didactic. Their films aim to condition viewers to become more sympathetic social actors; they are, if nothing else, “empathy-producing machines” (xv). Rather than capture us in spectacle they “teach us […] to be sensitive to bodies and objects that we may normally ignore or overlook […] to perceive better than before in order to readjust our views and behavior” (x). Given this outlook, the importance of Levinas to both the Dardennes and to Mai’s treatment of their work should be quite clear. Prescient but predictable, Mai repeatedly illustrates this point. La promesse, for example, explores the difficulties involved in overcoming the “other’s unbridgeable uniqueness and difference” through “a mutually respectful relationship that depends on language in the form of conversation and accountability” (51). And in Le fils, we learn how “dialogue builds a discursive bond almost against Olivier’s wishes” (97). Given especially Luc’s frequent citation of Levinas in his journals, the applicability of such a philosophical framework is apparent, but the extant scholarship on the Dardennes, slim though it may be, has fairly well covered this ground (see Cooper’s “Moral Ethics” piece in Film-Philosophy 11 Cummings entry in the Committed Cinema anthology, and Mai’s own “Corps-Caméra” in L’Esprit Créateur). This is not by any means to suggest we reject the Levinasian interpretations, only that, at this early stage in the development of a critical discourse, it might be more fruitful, or at least more provocative, to open up new and unforeseen lines of inquiry.

More often than not, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne reads like an impressive literature review – taking in everything from critical essays and film reviews to the copious interviews the brothers have given over the last decade and a half. This is far from a bad thing, but it means that Mai’s analysis lacks much in the way of complication, and that it too often risks stagnating around intentional fallacies. Like clockwork, Mai quotes Jean- Pierre’s affirmation of the odd affinity between Rosetta and Rambo and proceeds to thoroughly illustrate the war-film analogy: in the Dardenne’s film, “banal sounds become explosions, ordinary actions demand extraordinary prowess […] Rosetta lives with her mother in a trailer on a campsite; fills her jerrican with water from an outdoor pump; washes her clothes in a plastic bucket; carries a water bottle that she opens with her teeth like a canteen; hides her boots in a drainpipe in the woods [and] […] moves like a wounded soldier” (70, 74). Mai’s attentiveness here is inspiring, but his purpose seems merely to prove that what Jean-Pierre said should be taken to heart. He never extends the analogy beyond this superficial account, to say, for example, that by creating this warlike atmosphere, the Dardennes seek to unmask the raw brutality hiding just underneath the surface calm of the neoliberalized global village.

L’Enfant, Sony Pictures, 2005

Though he certainly demonstrates an undeniable awareness of the Dardennes’ strong political motivations, Mai never teases them out with regard to their later work, instead narrowly focusing on the not-unrelated ethical questions having to do more with interpersonal relations than socialstructural critique. Admittedly, the militant labour documentaries give way to more polished stories about individuals and the various Others they encounter, but this, to my mind, does not make the Dardennes’ cinema any less political. Perhaps as important as any of the ethical questions their films raise is precisely what they do not and cannot show us – namely, an organized resistance to the onslaught of global capital. Mai does well to highlight this from time to time, in his astute socioeconomic asides (for example, the plight of Francis in Le fils “is a perfect illustration of the need for rehabilitation centers” (90)), but does not seem to have the theoretical tools to deliver more than a cursory gloss on this crucial absent centre in the Dardenne catalogue.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is a thoughtful and comprehensive indexing of where we stand at present with regard to these innovative filmmakers, but it leaves little space for their innovations to flourish beyond what they themselves have already envisioned. Mai’s keen scene, shot, and frame analyses, his rousing attention to gesture and texture, and his comprehensive grasp on the evolutionary trajectory of the brothers’ career make for readily accessible and highly effective reading. However, much of the broader interpretative work offers little that has not previously been rehearsed. More film criticism than philosophy, and more breadth than depth, Mai’s book will likely be cited in the years to come as a fitting foundation for what will surely be a vast body of scholarly research. At present, it serves as a strong reminder that much remains to be said on the topic of the cinema Dardenne.

Piece originally published at Film-Philosophy | Creative Commons License


Agamben, Giorgio (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Daniel Heller-Roazen, trans. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Cardullo, Bert, ed. (2009) Committed Cinema: The Films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: Essays and Interviews. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Cooper, Sarah (2007) “Mortal Ethics: Reading Levinas with the Dardenne Brothers,” in Film-Philosophy 11.2: 66-87.

Debord, Guy (2003) Complete Cinematic Works: Scripts, Stills, Documents. Ken Knabb, trans. and ed. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.