Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne talk to Jim Wolfreys about the solidarity that transcends the tragedies of existence facing their characters and their latest film, The Silence of Lorna.
An adolescent boy is asked to look after the family of an immigrant worker in whose death he has been implicated. A young woman wages a furious lone struggle to forge an existence. A couple's life is blown apart when their son is offered for sale. These stories, told by the Dardenne brothers since the mid-1990s, turn around the dilemmas faced by individuals in marginal social situations, forced to comply with the ruthless logic of the market or find another way to live.
The film that first brought Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne an international audience was The Promise in 1996. Rosetta, which received the Palme d'Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, and The Child, which won it in 2005, confirmed their place among the most respected directors in world cinema.
Their latest film, The Silence of Lorna, deals with a young Albanian woman who arrives in Belgium and finds herself involved with a criminal gang engaged in the buying and selling of marriages as part of an underground trade in citizenship. This trade will require her tacit complicity in someone's death.
The Silence of Lorna is partly about the specific predicament of newly arrived immigrants to Western Europe, and the limited range of possibilities open to them. At the heart of the story, however, is the preoccupation that dominates most of the brothers' films - the scrutiny of an individual at a moment of crisis that will shape their life forever. Rosetta, for example, turns around the central character's search for friendship and for work and her decision to sacrifice one for the other. Claustrophobically centred on the astonishing performance by Emilie Dequenne in the title role, the brothers have described it as a "war film".
These are not morality tales, with the Dardennes sitting in judgment on the choices made by their characters. "A film is not a courtroom," says Jean-Pierre. "If we start to judge our characters there is no space for the viewer to form an opinion."
As Luc points out, "Lorna is socially fragile. If you or I want to do something, and have to get a loan from the bank to do it, we can. She can't. She's fragile in the sense that she cannot live like you or me. Because of her social situation she is ready to do things that we would not, because we have no need to. These situations happen to people like her perhaps more than to those living in material comfort. This leads her to have to accept or refuse the death of someone. Nothing can authorise her to do this. The spectator might think, 'Given her situation, we can understand'. But in this case no."
Hemmed in by constraints, the Dardennes' characters are stripped down to their most basic elements and forced to dredge up from within the resources required to survive. Yet the brothers' films are more than explorations of human instincts. Shaping and constraining the motivations of their characters is the brutal, impersonal web of the market.
"We like to lead our characters into situations where they become human beings," Luc continues, "where they discover that life has no price, contrary to what they thought. Lorna lives with the idea all the time that life has a price, money for this in exchange for that. And then here is something that escapes the exchange that governs all our behaviour today."
The brothers started out making documentary films. "We did a lot of portraits of people in working class areas. People told us about their lives, about times when they had fought for more justice, in their factory, their area, their life. And we showed these films, these little portraits, on a Sunday or a Saturday, in a café, in a garage, a room below a church, different places. Then we made documentaries that were more linked to the history of the labour movement. These were more collective subjects, for example, strikes or the resistance against the Nazis."
Since fiction offered more scope to explore situations, they began making feature films. Asked about the focus of their cinema, the brothers once noted that when films have a working class subject matter they are labelled "social cinema", whereas films with bourgeois characters are referred to as "psychological dramas". In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of films dealing with working class life.
"It's true that in the 1980s we didn't think this type of cinema was going to come back," Jean-Pierre remarks. "Perhaps in the past it was too ideological, trying to convince the viewer of its point of view and that it held the solution. There was an ideologically marked political cinema that made propaganda which wanted to affirm a viewpoint and claim that the only solution was the revolution."
Their own films avoid both overt politics and commercialism. "The profession will look for recognised actors. This is an important dimension. We try to say something new, more 'real'. We don't go via the figure of the actor to interpret it. We go directly to the thing in question. It's like we want to re-appropriate the world. We'd had enough of things that just made the machine turn over. We wanted to do something else, to have direct access to something, with less technical mediation. These are also cheaper films, made with fewer means, fewer well-known actors."
This method, giving scope for mostly untrained actors to feel their way around a role, will be familiar to those who know the films of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. Other similarities can be found in the choice of nondescript, mundane locations and in the straightforward lack of sentimentality with which working class life is portrayed. Images abound in Dardenne films of characters picked out against the blank monotone of concrete bridges and roads and the whirr of motorway traffic. Recurring themes include the importance of work, or its absence, and an unflinching focus on dehumanisation and the scope for resistance to it.
What do they have to say about the political implications of their films? "What interests me is not all these political, ideological things, but the individual," argues Luc. "Not to give categories or recipes or the solution but to ask, 'What is a human being?'; to lead it into extreme situations; to try to undress the person and ask 'Why did he do this or that?'; to try to go into situations where the individual will have to ask, 'Do I act to save this person or do I think of myself?'
"In a social situation, the market, where everyone is put into competition with everyone else - in a context where people are in permanent rivalry and organised like that by society and the economy - how is someone like Rosetta going to be able to love someone when the situation asks her to consider him as her enemy, her rival? How am I going to be able to love my rival and get beyond that? If not - will I kill him, make him fall? That's what interests us.
"They are tragedies of existence. To live am I going to have to kill? Am I going to be reduced to an animal state? Am I going to have to forget my sympathy for others? Our characters try to find this humanity, or in any case not to lose it."
The Dardenne brothers dramatise this struggle to remain human by placing the individual lives depicted, and the predicaments that animate them, at the heart of all their films, rather than the tricks of plot or technique. Their pared-down, uncluttered style and the frequently spellbinding performances they elicit from their actors make their cinema compelling, often moving and sometimes hard to watch.
One of the preoccupations of the Dardenne films is the possibility of individual dilemmas finding resolution through some form of solidarity. More often than not this involves some kind of affiliation with other isolated individuals, rather than a sense of belonging to a wider community. Some will see the lack of a broader canvas of class solidarity as a weakness in films like The Silence of Lorna, but what kind of weakness is this? The lack of political solutions means that there are no consolations on offer here, beyond simple human defiance in the face of the trauma inflicted on individuals by the system. Many may therefore dispute Jean-Pierre's view that, "Our films are more optimistic than reality."
Few directors today are capable of depicting the human cost of capitalism's brutality with the simple force and eloquence of the Dardenne brothers. The Silence of Lorna matches the considerable achievements of their previous films. It tells, moreover, the story of a young woman who, in the words of the film's press release, "has every reason to be desperate but who continues to believe that everything is possible". This is an outlook that socialists everywhere should be able to identify with.
The Silence of Lorna is out now