Still from The Promise (Le Promesse).

The Dardenne Brothers: On Hard Work, Patience & Mentors

Few things compare to the quiet, concentrated experience of watching a film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Amidst gritty landscapes, they track the day-to-day lives of working class Belgians living on the outskirts of society – a tenement owner, a carpenter, a petty thief – in a unforgiving, naturalistic style. In Europe, the Dardenne Brothers’ work has garnered the highest honors; they belong to the exclusive club of filmmakers who have won Cannes’ Palme d’Or, twice – once for Rosetta, and once for L’Enfant (The Child).

By the time the Dardennes earned their first Palme D’Or in 1999, they had been honing their craft since the mid-‘70s – writing, producing, and directing more than 60 documentaries before they turned their attention to narrative film in the late ‘80s.During the Marrakech International Film Festival, I sat down with the brothers at Es Saadi Palace, where we conversed through a translator. Drawing on their 35+ years of filmmaking, the Dardennes shared their advice on why it’s invaluable to get another point of view, how to work with the sounds around you, and why every creative needs to have a spiritual father in their life.

Do you have any specific rules you live by in filmmaking?

Jean-Pierre: It’s not something mathematical. But during the shooting, one of us is on the set and the other one is in front of the video monitor and maybe after the first shot we change our roles. But despite all of that, sometimes we think if one of us is not there, we can’t do the movie, because I’m not sure that we can do the movie that we would like to make. I think that we need the point of view of the other continuously. There will be something missing if one of us is not there.

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Still from Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence).

Why is there so much focus on work and labor in your cinema? Do you feel like this is an element that’s missing in art?

Luc: Well, probably because work is enabling a body to live. Our characters are people who used to work and then they lost their jobs, are unemployed now, and this has had a great impact on them. We were raised in Seraing, a big industrial city at the time, a little Detroit.

We manufactured lots of things that enabled the construction of the buildings
of New York, with all this big steel equipment. We used to produce that in our city. So work labor has always had an important role in our cinema – the visible work, the manual work, it has played a role in our life.

I think one of the big wishes of the human kind is to transform things, to work on things to construct, to destroy, to sometimes construct again. And not only to look at the world, let’s say, passively. I think that’s the aim of humankind, being a man, a woman, is to change things. And cinema is about showing things that are changing.

One of the big wishes of the human kind is to transform things, to work on things to construct, to destroy.

Even if the change is internal in Le Fils (The Son), we showed a man that is teaching the boy responsible for the homicide of his kid. So we also shoot the work of a carpenter, and by shooting these little movements, we are shooting something that we don’t see necessarily, which is the transmission of a work profession. The kid who is learning this profession feels he’s becoming recognized, feels more important, he has more self esteem. He’s not only the killer, he’s also this kid who is able to work on the wood, etc.And then we shot Rosetta, which features a character looking for a job. I think she’s looking for some kind of dignity, and some critics of the movie said it’s too reactionary because dignity is not only found in labor. It is true on the one hand, but those who do not work today say they feel they’re completely put aside, marginalized, because they feel they’re not useful anymore to society. And maybe because we come from that region, we believe, that being useful through the work we do is very important.

How is film, for you, a conversation?

Jean-Pierre: It only exists because you have people who come and see the movie and share that experience. When we make a movie, and when we offer it to the audience, it’s like sharing a journey or a trip where everyone is going to find his way and not necessarily just ours. It’s also an object of encounters, which does not mean that we all have to have the same opinion. But at least it’s exposed dialogue, and it helps you think and reflect and share with others and even to talk to yourself. It’s a quiet kind of conversation.

Several of your movies, for example, L’Enfant (The Child), end very abruptly. What does it mean to you to end in such a jarring manner?

Luc: In L’Enfant, we have a main character, Bruno, a man who cannot be a father, who is never able to be a father, and it feels like at the end of the movie he at last became a father. Well, I’m not sure things will be OK afterwards. But it seems like when they’re in the prison, where people can speak with their families, I think he says, “how’s Jimmy, how is he doing?” Well, he never said the name of the kid before. It means that he has changed. Because of the kid that he has saved from the water, Steve, he became someone else. It takes time. So we felt that it was the right moment to end the movie. Our movies are like portraits.

Why don’t you use music or soundtracks in your films?

Jean-Pierre: It’s not a dogma. We haven’t found any place or room for music in our movies. Maybe because we are not able to find the right music, I don’t know. And when we’re shooting, I think that’s where things happen actually. When we’re building our plans, etc., the rhythm of that construction is partly based on the sounds, not only the dialogues, but touching the objects. And rhythm is based on the sounds that we can hear on the set, the noise of the bodies moving, the breathing of the characters, that’s our music. We just don’t see the need for music. When we’re shooting we just don’t think about it. Maybe it’s going to change one day, I don’t know.

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Still from L’Enfant (The Child).

For you, what is the biggest challenge of being artists?

Luc: You just have to maintain the same point of view, to keep on believing what you believed in the beginning. It’s not because someone says today cinema is this or should not be that. Today, we should shoot like this or that. I don’t think that’s how things should be done. It’s difficult because remaining with the same ideas can drive us crazy, remaining loyal to our ideas. But one day you say something, you don’t know necessarily why, but you feel that it’s right, it’s the right thing for you, for us, and that’s it, and you keep on working.

Then the audience may come, may not come. It’s better when they’re there, of course. We do the movie for the audience, but at the same time, sometimes you have to admit and accept the fact of not having any audience. We may have missed something, but one should not say OK, because of that I’m going to change my style completely, or my way of doing movies. You have to wait. Sometimes it never comes, but that’s another problem. I think one should be patient and loyal to what you feel, to what you think, and to the message that you’d like to convey to your audience.

Remaining loyal to our ideas can drive us crazy.

Do you feel like cinema is a learning process for you?

Luc: Maybe it’s easy to say that, but we learn by doing and we’ve always worked like that. He’s never had a camera before. I never had a camera before making our portraits of people. And we never wrote any script before. So we really learned by doing.

People have been important, of course. We have had interesting encounters. We have met our spiritual father, Armand Gatti, a moviemaker, and we also met Jean Gruault, the screenwriter of Truffaut, and then we worked alone. Of course, we’ve read books on the cinema. We’ve been learning by ourselves. We have not been to any school.

Can you tell me a bit more about this spiritual father?

Jean-Pierre: He’s a man who is 86 now. He’s originally from Italy, but has always lived in France. He comes from the scattered areas of Monaco. I think he’s someone who always wrote things. During the Second World War, he joined the Resistance. At the age of 16, he did the Ardennes Offensive with the British army, so he’s someone who was very committed during his youth. At the end of the war, he became a journalist and then he would write for theatre. He’s been very important as a theatre writer in France, and he made several movies. We met him, like, 40 years ago.

I was a student at the theatre school, and he was a guest professor to show one of his works and that’s how it happened. Then I started working with him, and then Luc came over and I would say that this man, he helped us discover many things: the political commitments in general terms. He made us discover art, literature, lots of writers.

Luc: That’s what we call the spiritual father, the man that gives you the desire to discover new things. And that surprises you while also giving you confidence. So he’s someone who has played an important role in our work. Without this encounter, we wouldn’t have been doing what we’ve been doing all these years.

Ariston Anderson

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For over 10 years, Ariston has been covering all things culture: art, film, fashion, travel, and music. She is a leading identifier of current trends, a sought-out speaker, and a frequent contributor to numerous blogs focusing on art, entertainment, and luxury. She is an expert in digital strategy and marketing.
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