Filmmaker Retrospective: The Realistic Cinema of The Dardenne Brothers

4. L’enfant (The Child) (2005)


Jérémie Renier is often featured in Dardenne brothers’ films. He has a commanding presence on screen and the ability to transform himself into any character with ease. He is dynamic and a pleasure to watch, even when he plays the role of an extremely unlikeable character.

Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah Francois) survive on Bruno’s criminal activities and Sonia’s government benefits. They have a baby boy together that Bruno was unaware of until recently. Bruno does not want to get a real job and is fine scheming and stealing to get by. He is not nearly attached to the child as she is and knows that there is a black market for adoption that will pay him thousands of dollars for the baby.

When Sonia finds out that Bruno sells little Jimmy, she passes out from angst. Bruno realizes what a terrible mistake he has made and has to make things right before it’s too late.

The relationship between Bruno and Sonia is a visceral and physical one. They are often wrestling, clawing, and rough housing one another. It is playful and fun at first glance but there is rupture lying just beneath the surface. The hand-held camera movements mimic the chaos that must be going through Bruno’s mind as he realizes what he has done. The film can be anxiety provoking at times but everything is handled so masterfully, it is really a film that you should not miss.


3. Rosetta (1999)


In 1999, this film written and directed by the Dardenne brothers unanimously won the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. It was well deserved. This heartbreaking and unflinching film examines the life of a young girl determined to make it despite all odds. Rosetta really exemplifies the struggle of the protagonists found in Dardenne brothers’ movies.

Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) lives in “The Grand Canyon”, a trailer park with her alcoholic mother. She knows that if she can secure long-term employment, it will provide a better life in addition to being able to get away from her rotten family.

When her probationary work period is coming to an end, it leads to a violent confrontation, as she knows what is waiting for her on the other side. Eventually she meets Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione) who she believes can help her find another job. She has already had to battle for what little she has but has no idea what’s in store for her future.

This is true cinema at its finest. The Dardennes use no artificial light or score. They used nonprofessional actors and everything was shot on location. The film is about as natural as it comes. Emelie Dequenne won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her portrayal of Rosetta. The sheer will and determination of her character is one that will not soon be forgotten on screen.


2. Le fils (The Son) (2002)

Le Fils

Olivier Gourmet plays a trade instructor for youths at a rehab center. This movie is suspenseful and provides an extended tension that really gets to the viewer. It is almost even more stripped down than normal for the Dardennes. Olivier’s performance really cements the whole process.

Olivier is a carpentry instructor at a rehab center. He is very detailed and mindful about what he does. He is asked to take on a 16 year-old boy named Francis but initially declines the request. Instead, we see Olivier spying on the boy as he walks through the streets of Liege.

There seems to be something familiar about the boy to Olivier but what could it be? As the story unfolds, we soon realize what that relationship is between the boy and Olivier. Olivier is a very measured man but how long will he be able to maintain his composure with this new information?

This film is very unnerving. The pacing and tension are absolutely perfect though. Olivier keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering what his next move will be. Forgiveness can be a long arduous process for some. The Dardennes examine this theme throughout many of their movies and this one in particular treats it with the utmost respect. It is difficult to conceive of on some level but it is delineated in a clear and compassionate manner in this film.


1. La promesse (The Promise) (1996)

La promesse

Immigration and working class struggles often go hand in hand. The Dardennes take a close and honest look at these issues in one of their best films, La promesse. Both Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet star in this heartfelt drama about the trials and tribulations of being an illegal immigrant in Belgium.

Fifteen year-old Igor (Jérémie Renier) and his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) rent apartments to illegal immigrants. On occasion they use them in some questionable activities to make money. All goes well for the two until the building inspector arrives and Amidou (Rasmané Ouédraogo) falls and injures himself trying to hide from him. Igor makes a promise to Amidou that will involve a great deal of lying and deceit, two things he has learned well from his violent father.

The plot to this film is a little more involved than what we typically see from the Dardennes. We also get to see the early stages of a younger Jérémie Renier. He has grown into such a talent some twenty years later. The father/son dynamic between Igor and Roger is exemplary of the Dardennes’ canon. It still employs the hallmarks of their work, stripped down but raw and emotional. This is a wonderful film.


Honorable Mention: De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone) (2012)

rust and bone

This film was co-produced by the Dardenne brothers. Technically speaking the film is not credited as being a Dardenne brothers’ film but should be mentioned in the list. Marion Cotillard gives us a brilliant performance as a young killer whale trainer who goes through a terrible ordeal. This movie is beautiful despite dealing with some difficult subject matter. Jacques Audiard wrote and directed this drama.

Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) trains killer whales for marine tourist attraction in southern France. She is at a club one evening when a brawl erupts and she is slightly injured. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is bouncing at the club, as he has recently arrived from Belgium to look for work.

Ali is a formidable kickboxer and makes extra money by fighting. He escorts her home that evening to ensure her safety. Soon after, Stéphanie is in a debilitating accident at work and her life is turned upside down. Their relationship is put to the test as they both have several obstacles to overcome.

The story arc of the characters does not come to an easy resolution per se but nothing feels unfinished. There is a very realistic portrayal of a life changing injury without the typical pandering and sentimentality. Ali’s brutality is softened by his feelings for Stéphanie and gives him some multidimensionality. This is a tremendous film that benefits greatly from the Dardennes’ production quality.

Author Bio: Edwanike Harbour has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an avid film buff and currently writes for Madison Film Forum. When she’s not in front of a movie screen, she is usually listening to indie rock and reading Don Delillo novels.