Filmmaker Retrospective: The Realistic Cinema of The Dardenne Brothers

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have proven themselves to be a formidable pair within the world of cinema. Few directors and producers can depict a day in the life of people who are living on the outskirts as deftly as the Dardennes. The brothers are originally from Belgium. Their hallmark style focuses on individuals who are struggling to get by from day to day and the brutal choices they are often forced to make in order to survive.

Rarely if ever do they use a score, which only seems to make their films even more powerful as they are not looking to manipulate their audience with an intrusive soundtrack. Many of their films examine the delicate relationship between father and sons and how poor or selfish decisions have reverberating consequences for both parties. The shaky hand-held camera technique often adds to the level of chaos the central character or characters are often experiencing.

Their films also focus on themes such as personal responsibility, morality, and altruism. Both brothers are fond of Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rangione and Marion Cotillard. The Dardenne brothers’ films often force us to look deep inside ourselves and ask what we would do if we found ourselves in a similar situation?

The Dardennes studied drama in school and shortly thereafter, made short videos about the difficulty of life in their small, blue-collar town in Wallonia, Belgium. After meeting up with Ned Burgess and Armad Gatti, they pursued their passion full time. Their first film was a documentary released in 1978 about the Belgian resistance against the Nazis.

Nine years later, they completed their first narrative feature, Falsch, about the massacre of a Jewish family by Nazis, which was not as well received. Their first major triumph was La Promesse, which was released in 1996. From that point on, the Dardennes achieved a great deal of success at Cannes after winning two Palme d’Or awards for Rosetta and L’enfant.

Both Dardenne brothers have been quite prolific over the past several years. They have directed and produced well over thirty films. While the Dardennes have produced many documentaries and shorts, for the purposes of this list, only a select group of their narrative features will be included to give the reader a better cross section of their body of work. Fans of the Dardenne brothers will surely be looking forward to The Unknown Girl, which will be released in 2016.


8. Je pense a vous (I Think of You) (1992)

Je pense a vous

Many Dardenne brothers’ movies are set in Serang, Liege, a French speaking part of Belgium. This film takes place in an economically hard hit Belgian town along the Meuse river where the steel factories are closing down left and right. Several blue-collar workers are losing their jobs with no hope in sight.

Thirty-five year old Fabrice (Robin Renucci) is feeling obsolete and losing interest in life after being laid off. Fabrice is very proud of his job as a steel worker. His wife Céline (Fabienne Babe) tries her best to prevent him from succumbing to feelings of worthlessness. After a few fleeting moments of happiness, Fabrice is still in a fog and eventually just disappears. Céline goes on a journey to retrieve him hoping against hope that her love is enough to save him.

This film sets the template for many of their efforts to follow. It is not as strong as their subsequent work but it does depict the struggle of the working class in Belgian who are soon to be displaced by modern progress.

You see the plight of those who have fallen victim to some social justice or another and the struggle to retain their dignity. Some of the hallmark technical aspects of their films are not present in this feature. However, it sets the pace for greater things to come from the Dardennes.


7. Le silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence) (2008)

Le Silence de Lorna

The Dardennes tackle the issues of immigration in Belgium with this 2008 release. There are immigrants trying hard to make better lives for themselves in several places but getting the means to legally pursue their dreams is not always easy. There are always people looking to make a profit off of the suffering of others in situations like these.

This movie looks at the best laid plans and how quickly they can go awry as we follow the story of two Albanian immigrants who are clinging desperately to their dreams.

Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) and Sokol (Alban Ukaj) are two Albanian immigrants living in Belgium. They want to leave their bleak jobs and run their own snack cart but they need to obtain citizenship first. Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione) is a taxi driver who always has his hand in some criminal mischief. He decides to set up a sham marriage between Lorna and a junky named Claudy (Jérémie Renier).

Lorna will be able to obtain citizenship this way. Fabio also sets up another sham marriage between Lorna and a Russian mobster (Anton Yakovlev) in order to get the money for an EU passport. All does not go according to plan as the sham begins to unravel.

The Dardennes portray the lengths people are willing to go in order to get what they want but also what they will do in order to help someone in need. Jérémie Renier does an excellent job playing the strung out Claudy and Rongione does an excellent job as the seedy Fabrizio. This movie is touching and will have your sympathies resting in some unsuspecting places.


6. Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night) (2014)

Two Days, One Night

As calls for austerity ring through parts of Europe and other parts of the western world, many working class people are feeling the ill-effects of these policies. Sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but this film asks if many will sacrifice their own personal gain for one person? This is a gripping character study that emerged as one of the better films in 2014.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has struggled with depression to the point that it has affected her job performance. She has taken some time off to recover but soon finds out that her supervisor believes that her unit can function with sixteen people instead of seventeen with no overtime. However, in order for them to keep their bonuses, Sandra would be let go from her job.

They have been given an option of voting and decide to retain their bonuses. Her co-worker tells her about this event and believes that the supervisor has tried to unfairly influence the vote. Sandra, with the encouragement of her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rangione), sets out on a stress filled day to try and visit her co-workers and ask them if they will reconsider their votes. She is met with sympathy and derision but shows a great deal of emotional fortitude.

This movie is simple in its premise but brilliant in its execution. Marion Cotillard strays from her glamorous self in this film and really gives a standout performance as a depressed mother of two being pushed into unemployment. She gives it the subtle touch it needed. You don’t feel as if you are watching her on this journey as much as you are a part of it. If you haven’t seen this film, do put in on your must watch list sooner rather than later.


5. Le gamin au vélo (The Kid with the Bike) (2011)


The realism with which the Dardenne brothers approach their subject matter is what many appreciate about their films. They don’t sugar coat anything or go for the obvious happy ending. The Kid with the Bike takes its viewers on a stirring emotional journey that only they can create.

Cyril (Thomas Doret) has been abandoned by his father. He is being raised in a state run facility. Cyril can be sweet and sensitive but without guidance and love, he is teetering on the brink of delinquency. All he wants is to be with his dad and have a relationship with him. Eventually, he escapes from his facility on a bicycle to seek out his father.

The reunion is less than joyous. Samantha (Cécile de France) a hairdresser near Cyril’s town, agrees to take him on the weekends and try to offer some mentorship for young Cyril. Her area is filled with troubled teens, one in particular who tries to lure kids into criminal activity, and she wants Cyril to avoid this fate. The closer she tries to get to Cyril, the more he pulls away. The film heartbreakingly shows how people’s choices can lead to some serious consequences.

Jérémie Renier plays Cyril’s dead-beat father. He is a bit more muted here than in other performances but this is exactly what the role calls for. Thomas Doret is so good in this movie, you feel as if you are watching a documentary. It is quite rare that a child of that age can portray a wide range of raw emotions the way he does. This is one of the films that will stick with you long after the credits have finished rolling and will be remembered as one of the Dardennes’ masterpieces.