Where to begin with the Dardenne brothers

Belgian filmmaking duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make a special kind of heart-in-mouth cinema that’s based in the precariousness of real life. Here’s how to get a taste for them.

28 November 2022

By Geoff Andrew

Rosetta (1999)

Why this might not seem so easy

Since 1999, when Rosetta won them the first of their two Palme d’Ors (and they’ve also won most of the other major awards at subsequent Cannes Film Festivals), the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have established themselves not only as important – and enormously influential – filmmakers; they are also, surely, among the most distinctive. Every film they’ve made since that groundbreaking work has been immediately recognisable as theirs and theirs alone. This creative signature is discernible in both content and form.

In film after film, they deal with the challenging lives of the marginalised, the vulnerable, the impoverished, the alienated, the troubled. Shooting on location for the most part in the industrialised town of Seraing – where they grew up – the Dardennes concern themselves with characters struggling, for one reason or another, simply to hold things together. And they do so through a determinedly realist aesthetic, which avoids explicit social comment, gratuitous narrative exposition, clumsy explanatory dialogue, conspicuously ‘beautiful’ imagery, flashy editing effects or virtuoso camera movements. There’s no non-diegetic music and, with a couple of exceptions, no well-known actors.

Tori and Lokita (2022)

This constant focus on hardship, anxiety and suffering in a world plagued by inequality, injustice, exploitation and crime might sound off-putting, especially since the Dardennes refuse to sugar the pill by glamorising characters (many of their protagonists have less than sympathetic qualities and tend towards the self-destructive). Their films also eschew the tropes of mainstream popular cinema: the films often start ‘in medias res’, without explanation or establishing shots, leaving viewers to work out for themselves over the next 10 minutes or so who these people are and why they behave as they do. 

But for all their consistency (which derives partly from the brothers’ view of the world, partly from their working repeatedly with various actors and crew members), the films differ sufficiently in their attention to telling details to feel surprisingly fresh and different from one another. Moreover, they are notable for their dynamic pacing, brevity – they generally last between 85 and 100 minutes – and expert building of tension and suspense. 

Although they all deal (though almost never explicitly in terms of spoken dialogue) with the ethical, social and political realities of life in today’s Europe, they are in many respects action movies, in which the urgency of the characters’ needs, impulses and feelings is externalised through the restless, almost ceaseless movements of their bodies. 

It’s perhaps revealing that the Dardennes have long admired not only the films of Robert Bresson but also those of Clint Eastwood. In short, their particular brand of humanist cinema is profoundly compassionate, deeply moving and highly accessible.

The best place to start – The Child

The Child (2005)

Since the consistency of subject, setting, style and standard of the Dardennes’ films is as strong a feature of their work as it was with, say, Yasujiro Ozu or Éric Rohmer, it’s difficult to single out one title alone as an introduction to their oeuvre. But if forced to choose, let’s settle on their second Palme d’Or-winner, The Child (2005), in which Jérémie Renier – who’d already appeared in La Promesse (1996) and would turn up again in three later Dardenne films – plays 20-year-old Bruno, living off his gang of schoolkid thieves and his girlfriend’s benefit payments. He’s so unthinkingly irresponsible in his pursuit of money, he’s even prepared to put their recently born baby at risk… 

Not exactly a character to root for, then, but such is the Dardennes’ expertise – as writers and as directors – that we come to care about Bruno’s future. The result is a wonderfully evocative, unsentimental account of a hand-to-mouth existence lived on the streets. It leads to a chase sequence as suspenseful as anything offered by Hollywood, and on to an ending of sublime grace and emotional power. 

What to watch next

The Son (2002)

The three movies that preceded The Child are also fruitful routes into the brothers’ cinematic world. La Promesse, which the Dardennes consider the first narrative feature they managed to get right, has Renier as a teenager who finally falls out with his father (Olivier Gourmet, another regular in their early films) after an accident forces him to rethink the latter’s migrant-smuggling business. Rosetta (1999) centres on a volatile teenager living in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother and desperately trying to hold down any job she can get. And The Son (2002) concerns a carpentry teacher (Gourmet again) who finds that one of his young pupils played a part in the death of his son. 

Firmly rooted in the jagged rhythms and raw textures of everyday urban life, these films are nonetheless transformed by the Dardennes’ dramatic skills into gripping tales of mystery and suspense, their sobering stories illuminated by a genuine sense of compassion for tormented souls.

The same, undoubtedly, can also be said of their most recent film, Tori and Lokita (2022), about two young Africans, one of them without residency papers, trying to survive in Seraing while under constant threat from the Belgian authorities, people-smugglers and criminally exploitative employers. Blessed with marvellous performances from its two leads, it’s one of the Dardennes’ darkest films, and one of the most devastating in its emotional punch.

Two Days, One Night (2014)

Given the Dardennes’ consistently high standards (they take their time over their films, usually completing one every three years), it’s easy and rewarding to move on to any of the films made this century. The Silence of Lorna (2008), about an Albanian immigrant who’s in need of money and resident status, admittedly has an audacious narrative ellipse that can cause a little temporary confusion, while Two Days, One Night (2014), centred on a woman trying to persuade colleagues to give up a bonus so that she can keep her job, and The Unknown Girl (2016), about a doctor obsessed with the mysterious death of an African woman who called at her surgery after it had closed, suffer a little from slightly repetitive, episodic narratives. Still, they are all involving, intelligent films of no little social relevance. 

That’s also true of Young Ahmed (2019), which concerns the radicalisation of a 13-year-old Muslim boy who comes to believe his teacher is an apostate. But perhaps a more affecting study of the pitfalls of youth is The Kid with a Bike (2011), about a 12-year-old who refuses to believe his father (Renier again) has effectively abandoned him, and who is torn between the influence of a local gang-leader and that of a kindly hairdresser. The hairdresser, incidentally, is played by Cécile de France, the Dardennes’ first casting of a ‘name actor’; the second would be the still more famous Marion Cotillard as the protagonist in Two Days, One Night.

Where not to start

It would be difficult to start with the films made by the Dardennes before La Promesse as none of them is currently easily available. But even if they were, they certainly don’t represent the best of the brothers’ work. Their early documentaries – some of which anticipate the later films in focusing on working-class lives in Seraing – are fascinating but very rarely screened. Falsch (1987), a stylised adaptation of a play by René Kalisky about a Jewish family of the diaspora trying to come to terms with its memories, is intriguing but wholly atypical; while Je pense à vous (1992), in dealing with the effects of redundancy on a Seraing steel-worker and his wife, is thematically aligned to the Dardennes’ subsequent work but stylistically far more conventional and, consequently, far less successful. 

Unlike their films from La Promesse onwards, which are so consistently satisfying that they are all highly recommended, these early works are probably best regarded as for completists only.

Tori and Lokita is in cinemas from 2 December 2022. 

There’s a screening + Q&A with the Dardennes at BFI Southbank on 3 December.

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