Tag: jean-pierre dardenne

The Unknown Girl

The Unknown Girl (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne craft yet another beautiful portrait of ordinary people who just happen to find themselves in a moral quandary and then must deal with the aftermath of their action or inaction. A deeply humanistic picture that does not ask for anyone’s judgment or sympathy, “The Unknown Girl” urges attentive and intelligent viewers to question what we would have or might have done had we been thrusted in a similar situation. It only asks that we be honest with ourselves. Therein lies its quiet power.

This time around, the focus is on a young physician (Adèle Haenel) who chooses not to answer the door because she and her intern (Olivier Bonnaud) have been in the clinic an hour past closing time. The next day brings tragic news of a dead girl whose body is found at a construction site right across the street. The clinic’s video recording reveals that the doorbell was actually a cry for a help. Clearly distraught and desperate, it appears the girl without a name was being chased.

The material is interested in exploring who Jenny is as a doctor, on and off the clock. It is interesting that Haenel plays the character with a rather stolid surface most of the time, even telling her trainee that in order for him to become a good physician he must always keep his emotions in check. But behavior says paragraphs about a person and the Dardenne brothers observe without appraisal, not even a hint of a score or soundtrack. We hear every footstep, each uncomfortable shuffling, the deafening silence in a room when a person struggles to keep a secret.

Notice the way Jenny looks at her patients, how she injects needles into her patients’ skins, how she touches and moves their limbs as she attempts to examine what might be going wrong in their bodies. Then notice how her patients regard her when they are being cared for, as Jenny supports them up and down the stairs after a consultation, how they say goodbye to one another at the entrance. Unemotional on the surface, observant viewers will detect that Jenny is a physician who cares deeply for the lives around her. Calls from patients are always urgent. Laboratory results are relayed right away.

A movie like this will hardly appeal to the masses, especially those hoping to be entertained by stunning visual effects and loud, busy action. However, works like “La fille inconnue” have a better chance of standing the test of time because just as choices and emotions are raw, repercussions are dire and unflinching. Great dramas build suspense out of reality and we watch spellbound as the protagonist interacts with people who may know a lot more than they let on initially. The material is unafraid to show complex people just as they are, how ugly and beautiful we can be to one another; it allows us to consider being more aware, more present, of our surroundings and how we interact with it.


Rosetta (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Shot without distraction or decoration, it is critical that “Rosetta” shows only the truth because its aim is to show a stark portrait of poverty. Its style is so bare, so skeletal and realistic that a handheld shooting style is employed in order for viewers to be placed right in the action as a desperate teenage girl, having just been let go from a temporary position without warning, hunts for a new job. Rosetta is played by Émilie Dequenne and she dominates every frame and devastating moment in the film—an astounding achievement because not only is it her first starring role, it is her first role ever on film.

Writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are masters of showing rather than telling. Instead of relying on dialogue as a tool to explain or acknowledge the hardships of Rosetta’s life, the camera simply follows her day-to-day activities, the frame in focus from the waist up, often shot from behind. We observe the state of her trailer home. The interiors are drained of color and excitement. We notice her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux), panic-stricken at the sight of her daughter coming home because she knows that Rosetta is like a bloodhound, always searching for evidence that mother has been drinking yet again.

Lesser filmmakers would likely have made the parent a target of ridicule, someone to judge and blame. Instead, the Dardenne brothers, so focused in their objective of showing a specific lifestyle of a specific life, use the matriarch as a figure of Rosetta’s possible future. Rosetta regards her mother not necessarily with love or pity but a wilting thing that needs to be cared for because she is helpless. She fears she will become her mother if she fails to get “a real job” and live “a normal life.” The dialogue is scant but when utilized, we are made to remember what is expressed and how.

We note Rosetta is always drinking tap water. She rarely eats because there is nothing to eat. But she must quench the hunger somehow. She is prone to abdominal pains so crippling, it is one of the rare moments when we see her react intensely. Despite her discomfort and exhaustion—in body, mind, and spirit—someone in their two-person household must land a job so bills can be paid. The campground manager (Bernard Marbaix) shuts things off without warning when payments are late.

And so off Rosetta goes to ask around if anyone is looking to hire. Many of those she encounters never bother to look her in the eye. But looks or judgment, or lack thereof, do not defeat her. She is used to it, inured by people’s apathy. And when a rare person comes along who appears to genuinely care for her, who likes her in all of her simplicity, this individual (Fabrizio Rongione) is tested. Why should they care for trash like her? We look in Rosetta’s eyes and realize that perhaps trash is exactly how she sees herself sometimes. Still, she remains to have the will to fight, refusing to accept welfare or handouts. She’d rather sell clothes off her back.

Notice how “Rosetta” does not employ soundtrack or score. Nor does it need to. Its music can be heard all around, from the way people move, like during a scuffle with security guards because someone would not leave the premises when asked, and how they feel when they are struck with a discovery, such as coming across one’s unconscious mother exposed outdoors for all the neighbors to see or a when a friend offers a helping hand. The music is ingrained in the every day happenings for the viewers to absorb raw, unfiltered.

Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Fourteen out of sixteen employees voted to terminate Sandra (Marion Cotillard) in exchange for a bonus of one thousand euros. But Sandra, who has a history of depression, is getting another chance: Due to a certain piece of information that might have impacted the votes, there will be another election the coming Monday. Over the weekend, she hopes to visit her colleagues and try to persuade them to change their votes.

“Two Days, One Night,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, is told with such simplicity and honesty that just about every passing minute commands tension. We follow Sandra from the moment she receives the news about her possible termination until the moment she learns whether she will still have a job. There is no sentimentality. There is only a difficult situation and the person in the middle of it.

Some might wonder whether a situation like the picture presents can or does happen in real life. I didn’t care either way because what is at stake is important. If Sandra gets terminated, she and her husband (Fabrizio Rongione) will not be able to afford the mortgage and so they must rely on some sort of financial assistance to get by. We get a chance to see how their family lives. They are not destitute but we can surmise based on the kind of bedsheets they have, the space of their place, the decorations on the wall, and the like that they are likely to fall somewhere in a lower socioeconomic status. Notice the kind of food that is put on the table for the children.

There are emotional moments and it is a challenge not to be able to empathize. These are shot in an intelligent and mature way. For instance, when Sandra feels like breaking down and crying, her suffering is not front and center. Notice that her body is turned away from the person nearest to her and also away from the camera—as if she is ashamed to be perceived as weak for shedding tears.

Most of the time, Cotillard leaves me cold with her acting because there is something about her that is not easily accessible. Sometimes even I find her to have a whiny undertone. Not here. Sure, she is made to look unglamorous, sporting no makeup, the straps of her bra always visible. But she gives something special. I noticed that Sandra has a real smile and one that she employs to force herself to feel better. Because the filmmaking can be considered minimalist, small things like facial expressions are magnified.

It is difficult to guess whether a particular co-worker will eventually give in to refuse the considerable bonus and allow Sandra to keep her job. This is because the actors who play them come across as real people one might encounter in the street. Because it is a challenge, we look closer. We note the body languages, the tone in the voices, whether there is eye contact. We are engaged.

“Deux jours, une nuit” is the kind of film I look for. It takes a simple premise and we watch the character to sink or swim amongst the challenges thrown at her. The ending, as expected from a Dardenne brothers film, is not only perfectly handled but it also feels exactly right.

Lorna’s Silence

Lorna’s Silence (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), originally from Albania, makes a deal with a local mobster, Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), in order to gain citizenship in Belgium. Her dream, once she has the proper identifications, is to move in with her boyfriend (Alban Ukaj) and open a snack bar.

Lorna is assigned by Fabio to marry a drug addict named Claudy (Jérémie Renier). A couple of days after she gains citizenship, Claudy is to be killed. This causes Lorna anxiety but, according to the men around her, it does not matter anyway because Claudy is just a drug addict. Finally, she is to marry a wealthy Russian, Andrei (Anton Yakovlev), who also needs Belgian citizenship. Once Andrei has what he wants, Lorna is free to go on with her life. Naturally, things go wrong.

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, “Le silence de Lorna” is a great exercise in mood. I found it curious because we do not start off necessarily liking our protagonist. The way she treats Claudy as he struggles through his addiction is selfish and ugly. She is so detached from him, she cannot even hand him a glass of water when he begs her for one. She feels the need to put the water in a bowl, place it on the floor, and watches him drink it like a dog. As the pattern of their spurious relationship begins to crystallize, I became convinced that I knew exactly where it is headed.

The story takes another direction completely. This is the trickiest and most brilliant part of the screenplay. Because I assumed that I knew where the story is going to go, I was not as vigilant to the signs that hint at the important changes about to unravel. Before I knew it, the Dardennes have led me to a trap and I was suddenly uncertain as to how the characters might deal with the new cards they have been given.

While becoming a Belgian citizen remains to be Lorna’s primary motivation, she begins to consider other possibilities—options that are different from what Fabio has planned for her. Lorna’s inner turmoil between doing the right thing and taking what she wants is compelling to watch. Dobroshi’s androgynous face urges us to look closer because there is an interesting inconsistency between her actions and what is really going on in her mind.

The film is appropriately titled “Lorna’s Silence” because whenever our protagonist is silent in a car, in her apartment, or at work, she is thinking—thinking how she can outsmart Fabio, who seems to be an expert in the business of fake marriages, thinking about her dreams becoming reality, thinking that happiness is only an arm’s length away, and thinking of ways to make everyone happy without taking the life of just another junkie.

Lorna is willing to play dirty with the law but she hopes to come out of the fray unblemished. She may not be likable in the beginning, but the Dardennes have found a way for us to see ourselves in her without a typical character arc. Like Lorna, sometimes we think that if we only strategize a little smarter, we can get away with the repercussions. Life is strange in that it has a funny way of catching up with us eventually.

The Kid with a Bike

The Kid with a Bike (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Cyril (Thomas Doret), currently staying in a children’s home, runs away from school to go to his dad’s place to get his bike. Although the counselors have told him that his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier) no longer lives there, he is convinced that this is a lie. He sees for himself that the flat is empty and along with it the bike he values greatly. Some time passed and Cyril is most surprised when Samantha (Cécile De France), one of the women who has seen him cause pandemonium at his father’s apartment complex, brings him the bike he has been searching for. As the kind woman drives away, Cyril stops her and asks if he can spend every weekend with her. She thinks it is a good idea but tells him she must speak with the one in charge first. Cyril is not convinced, but maybe he ought to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes the simplest films hold the most meaning. Such is the case in “The Kid with a Bike,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, completely enveloping in putting us into the mindset of a child who discovers that he is not wanted by his own father and uncompromising in showing the very real dangers of a young person not having anyone to look up to, a role model who is there when needed and, perhaps more importantly, when not.

The scenes that make up the picture are short and to the point. The early sequences involve Cyril visiting all sorts of places he can think of that his father used to frequent like a store or a gas station. Watching him run around should tip us to the fact that the boy in red is smart and determined. When he is faced with a dead end, he does not allow the situation to get to him or slow him down. There is an optimism to our protagonist’s approach that is very painful to experience at times because even though our he does not let the sadness seep in, most of us already have a full understanding of what is going on. For him, it is simple: a dead end is an opportunity to turn around and find another avenue. In essence, the resilience we observe is the reason why we root for this child to find his way.

The film hinges on Doret’s performance. I admired how his anger is communicated in obvious and subtle ways. When he gets into a physical altercation, notably with an older boy who attempts to steal his beloved bike, his movement is brisk and full of purpose. Although the aim is not to maim, it looks like watching a person who has nothing to lose. The other kid, though larger in stature, appears limp in comparison. On the other hand, Cyril’s anger is communicated in the way he interacts with objects like a car, a sink, or a door. Notice the way he cuts bread with a knife. It is messy, inefficient, and out of control.

There is no explicit information provided to us about Samantha other than she is a hairdresser, but we like her. It is not because she is a saint-like figure. No, we like her because she is the only one who is willing to go out of her way to give Cyril a chance. (The counselors in the children’s home do not count because it is their job to look out for him.) The way Samantha looks at him suggests that maybe she comes from a similar background. We do not know for sure. What is certain is that she cares about the kid like he is her own, that by showing him that there is good in the world, he can choose to do good and not be like his absent father or the drug dealer (Egon Di Mateo) who recruits kids around the neighborhood to become budding criminals. In that way, the picture is suspenseful because we are curious about how the boy in red will turn out.

“Le gamin au vélo” touched me deeply for two reasons. First, it is a hopeful but an unsentimental case study of youth that is mostly either largely ignored or falsely represented. Second, the film is a true definition of art because it inspires us to think about what is being said, whether it be via images or dialogues, as well as what we think of our reactions to what we are experiencing. So many movies get away with being so loud and empty. This one dares to be quiet and gently reminds us that we have the power to change lives.

The Son

The Son (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Le fils” or “The Son,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, tells the story of a sixteen-year-old (Morgan Marinne) who is taken under the wing of a grieving carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) who lost his son five years ago. As the film goes on, Olivier becomes more and more interested in the teenager and not until we meet Olivier’s wife (Isabella Soupart) do we find out exactly why he is so fixated on his new apprentice. This is probably one of the most bare-boned films I’ve ever seen but it has such a powerful emotional wallop. I can understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by this movie because not a lot of things happen on the surface. The dialogue was minimal and the camera had a penchant for close-ups to really absorb the nuances in the facial expressions of the actors. I argue that the film is very eventful when it comes to the internal rage and depression that each character is going through. Yet they also want to not be angry anymore and to move on with life. Just looking in their eyes made me feel so sad because I felt as though they had a story that they were ashamed of and would do anything to keep hidden. Once that connection is made between the two leads and the audience, each movement was purposeful and had some kind of meaning. I was really curious about whether Olivier wanted to hurt the teenager in some way or if he has something else in mind. The silences that they shared were so painful and awkward to watch at times yet I thought it was very realistic. When I think about it, there are some days when I say less than ten words to another human being because either I’m so into my own thoughts that I don’t even notice or I actively choose not to speak to avoid some kind of collision. The directors really knew how they wanted their story to unfold and it’s a shame because the majority of less introspective viewers would most likely miss the point. There’s a lot to be said about “Le fils” but this is the kind of film worth discussing between two people who have seen it than between a reviewer and someone contemplating of seeing it. The organic manner in which the picture revealed itself to me touched me in a way that it was almost cathartic. If you’re feeling like watching something that doesn’t conform to Hollywood typicality, this is definitely a great choice. My advice is to be patient during the first twenty to thirty minutes. It will hook you in when you least expect it.

The Child

The Child (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

I believe “L’enfant” is another one of those movies where audiences will be quick to judge and label it as the kind of movie where “nothing happened.” Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the film told the story of a couple (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François) who recently had baby. However, both of them were very young and the first few scenes of the picture established them as parents who were far from ready to raise a child. What’s even worse is that the father actively doesn’t want to get a job. He would rather steal from people and sell the objects he stole for a quick buck. Faced with the responsibility of raising a child, he saw the child as another means of making money. There’s a certain sadness about this picture that fascinated and angered me at the same time. I was very angry with the characters’ decisions, especially the father’s, but I could not help but wonder how the consequences of their actions would change (or not change) them in the long run. While the movie did not have a lot of dialogue, the silent moments and body movements were enough to let the audiences feel the gravity of certain situations and the desperation of the two leads. I also enjoyed the brilliant symbolism regarding the father and his way of constantly selling things. I thought it was very fitting considering that he was the kind of person who did not want to get attached in fear of finally being responsible for something. Lastly, the use of bright colors for a somewhat grim story provided a nice contrast. This is a small movie but I found it to be quite powerful because it had a certain insight without really judging its characters. It simply shows what is and sometimes that’s enough to make us question ourselves how we would have done things differently if placed in similar situations. Strangely enough, even though I did not agree with more than half of the characters’ choices, I still felt for them and ultimately wanted them to succeed or maybe even lead a better life, especially for the newborn. If one is up for an honest experience via a cinematic medium, one should consider to watch this movie.