The curious nature of the Dardennes

Visiting Haifa for their film's Israeli premiere, Palme d'Or winning brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne still don't take themselves seriously.

darden film 88 (photo credit: )
darden film 88
(photo credit: )
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers whose films have won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival - twice - have been called geniuses, philosophers, poets and visionaries. But the word that best describes them right now, after eight hours of interviews to promote their latest movie, L'Enfant (which had its premiere at the Haifa International Film Festival last week and which is opening all over Israel today), is tired. Or punchy. These elegant, patrician French-speaking gentlemen may be able to take the interview process seriously at other times, but right now, as they sit in a conference room in a Haifa hotel, they've had it. In response to a question about the thematic progression from their previous film, Le Fils, about a father whose son was murdered by a stranger, to their current film, L'Enfant, the story of a young criminal who decides to sell his own baby to shady adoption brokers, Luc says: "Congratulations. You've seen both movies. It's like in Eurovision. Belgium gives five points to Israel." A flip response like this might not be so surprising if the brothers made comedies, but their films are serious explorations of alienation and poverty in the margins of society. In L'Enfant, Bruno, a young petty crook suddenly sells his baby without consulting the baby's mother, his girlfriend, who insists that he return the child to her. When he gets the baby back, the adoption brokers insist he pay back double the money he was given, which leads him to attempt a particularly brazen robbery. The movie is made with painstaking realism, and many scenes feature little or no dialogue. Although not an easy film to watch, L'Enfant received superlatives from critics worldwide and won the brothers their second Cannes Palme d'Or. Their first came in 1999 with the film Rosetta, the story of a young woman's struggle to make a living. They developed an international following in 1996 with the release of La Promesse, about a teenage boy (played by Jeremie Renier, who also stars in L'Enfant) who works with his father, a contractor who employs African laborers illegally and takes great risks to help the family of a man killed on the job. Although you might think that their past success would ensure a warm reception all over the world, they work extremely hard at promotion. Asked where they've been recently to do publicity for their movie, Jean-Pierre, who is nursing a sore throat, reels off a list of their recent destinations: "Russia, Finland, Poland. Tomorrow, Spain. Then we're going to Japan and Taiwan. Then Berlin, Munich. In November, that's it. We hope the film will find good adoptive parents, but we're going to have to let it go out into the world without us." In 2003, they visited the Jerusalem Film Festival as part of a similar world tour for Le Fils. Although they look like twins and finish each other's sentences, Luc was born in 1954 and has a degree in philosophy, while Jean-Pierre is three years older and studied acting. They grew up in the Belgian city of Awirs, which they describe as an industrial city similar to Manchester, England. They come from a working-class background (their father was a draftsman, their mother a homemaker), and in 1975 formed a documentary production workshop that eventually produced over 60 films, many of which were about the labor movement, and some of which they directed. They have always worked together, and are credited as co-writers and co-directors. In the late Eighties, feeling they needed to express themselves in a new way, they began making dramas. But as somber and austere as their films are, they have a hard time giving serious answers to serious questions - perhaps because they have been asked so many. Asked whether there is any Christian allegory in the plot of L'Enfant (in which the parents, babe in arms, are initially turned away from a homeless shelter and in which the theme of Bruno's redemption dominates the second half), they raise their eyebrows to an impressive height and look as shocked as if they had been accused of cannibalism. "Those who say that, it says more about them than about the movie," says Luc. So it's not a story of redemption? "The character of Bruno is different at the end. He becomes a different Bruno. We stop the film at a moment of reconciliation," Luc says. Then the real theme of the film is economic oppression? "No, because Bruno is not in such a desperate situation [when he sells the baby]. He's not starving. He has lots of other ways of getting money," says Jean-Pierre. So why does he sell it? Jean-Pierre shrugs. "It's a mystery. To us, too." They are slightly more comfortable discussing how they work on a film. Their films look improvised, but are not. "We rehearse and then we change things. We make all the changes before we film," says Luc. Before they fade out completely, I venture one last question. In the film's climax, the baby is not present. Who is taking care of him? "He's in Bethlehem. In a manger, right?" Jean-Pierre replies. They laugh and head off to have coffee and take cough medicine.