When the Boat of Léon M. Went Down the Meuse River for the First Time (1979)
Before making the feature films they are known for today, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne founded Derive in 1975, a company responsible for the production of over 60 documentaries. They only directed a few themselves, but from the earliest works, themes of de-industrialisation and precarious labor conditions dominated the releases. This documentary is a poetic take on the 1960 strike in Belgium’s Meuse River industrial region. A tribute to past workers resistance movements, the film juxtaposes archive footage and interviews with local militants around a boat ride with Leon Masy, a former striker who travels up the river towards Liege on his hand-built boat as he recounts memories from the turbulent period.
Largely confined to the archives, this first fiction film is hardly seen anymore. It marks a period of formal experimentation where Falsch’s avant-garde aesthetics were immediately followed by the melodramatic tone of Je Pense à Vous (1992), later to establish their long-standing brand of gritty realism with La Promesse and onward. It’s an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical play of the same name, penned by Belgian writer René Kalisky, in which a family of holocaust survivors meet 40 years later, for a reunion in Berlin airport. Concerned with an exploration of the relationship between theater and cinema, the film is a stylistic remove from any of the Dardenne’s later works, but holds on to themes of spiritual renewal in the face of adversity.
Three years after 1996’s well received The Promise, it was with Rosetta that the Dardenne brothers brought home the highest honour from the Cannes Film Festival and the first Palme d’Or of their career. The film portrays a slice in the life of seventeen year old Rosetta, played by Emilie Dequenne, as she struggles to secure a job to hopefully allow her to leaver her alcoholic mother and attain a more meaningful existence. It is a gloomy tale, in which unforeseen circumstances repeatedly thwart the young protagonist’s best efforts. What impressed most critics and makes this a modern classic in the eyes of many, is the empathy it evokes through stylistically detached neorealist rigour.
Les Fils (2002)
One of the late Roger Ebert’s top films of the noughties, Le Fils (The Son) brings long-time collaborator Olivier Gourmet a central role as Olivier, a carpenter who takes on Francis (played by Morgan Marinne), a young apprentice pushed by his social worker to take a place at Olivier’s workshop. Their relationship is unveiled progressively but to reveal it here would rob the film of much of its mystery and pathos. Les Fils possesses a deceptively simple solid script, relentless in its inquiry of the dynamics of understanding and forgiveness, and strong natural performances by its leads.
L’Enfant (The Child) placed the sibling directors in the very small club of two-time Palme d’Or winners. The exhilaratingly free, poor (and one point even homeless) and largely amoral Bruno (Jeremie Renier) lives entirely in the moment, earning money by meddling in petty crime daily. The drama kicks off when Sonia (Deborah Francois), girlfriend and mother of their new born baby, learns that Bruno has sold the child on the black market. As the film proceeds, Bruno slowly grows increasingly aware of his own moral and spiritual crisis, marking the beginning of the character’s uphill climb towards self-reflection, and coming to terms with guilt and regret. All of the accumulating tension is finally released in the film’s poignant last sequence.
Lorna’s Silence (2008)
In Lorna’s Silence, the directors revisit the lives of immigrants in Belgium, a subject first explored in 1982’s documentary Lessons from a University on the Fly. Lorna, played by Arta Dobroshi, is a 30-something Albanian woman who dreams of opening a café with her boyfriend, Sokol. Tragic consequences permeate this subtle drama from the point in which Lorna agrees to marry a local heroin addict in order to gain citizenship. In one sense, this film places its characters on home turf, struggling with working class hardships and the moral challenges arising from desperate economic conditions. For the first time however, this Cannes rewarded script introduces a new-found veil of mystery, moving significant and climatic parts of the drama off-screen.
Two Days, One Night (2014)
The directors’ latest effort was the first time they broke the unspoken rule of not casting famous film stars. Set in Seraing, Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a wife and mother working in a small solar-panel factory. The plot-line sets in motion an ingenious premise, excellently executed on paper and in the actor’s performances, in which Sandra risks being laid off from the workplace unless she manages to convince her work colleagues to give up a 1000 euro bonus over the course of one weekend. The effects are heart-wrenching but always handled with a rare compassionate and detached humanity.