Jrmie Renier as Igor in "La Promesse." (Criterion Collection )
It's hard to imagine now, but the Palme d'Or awarded at Cannes to the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for their 1999 movie "Rosetta" stirred considerable controversy. Bewildered that the festival's top prize could go to a rough-hewn indie about the mundane struggles of a sullen trailer-park teenager, some pundits faulted the jury, led by David Cronenberg, for willful obscurantism.
In a matter of years, the "Rosetta" win would seem so obvious as to be a no-brainer. The Dardennes have become Cannes fixtures: they took home a second Palme d'Or for 2005's "L'Enfant" and received a runner-up prize last year for "The Kid With a Bike."
The most single-minded of contemporary auteurs, they make films with clearly identifiable style, milieu and concerns. And their imprint — whether in an implicitly political focus on life on the margins, or in the radical concision and immediacy of the storytelling — can be felt on independent cinema the world over, not least in the States, where Kelly Reichardt, So Yong Kim, Lance Hammer and Ramin Bahrani, among others, have been influenced to varying degrees by the Dardennes.
The Criterion Collection has just issued, on DVD and Blu-ray, the two films that propelled the brothers to international prominence: the surprise art-house hit "La Promesse" (1996) and "Rosetta" (1999). They remain the building blocks of the Dardenne oeuvre and perhaps the best illustrations of the central tension in their films between simplicity of means and richness of effects.
Political documentarians for some two decades before they turned to fiction, the Dardennes are often situated in the neo-realist or kitchen-sink tradition. But while their movies have the trappings of social realism — set in and around the depressed industrial town of Seraing, they concern the necessity and the absence of work — they are also streamlined moral thrillers, paced for maximum suspense and hinging on ethical crises that are often very much matters of life and death.
Like the great Robert Bresson, to whom they are frequently compared, the Dardennes make films so rigorous and distilled that they often take on a spiritual dimension. Many of their movies, which involve the possibility of grace and redemption, can be read as Christian allegories, but they are also lucid studies of the daunting mathematics and cruel logic of day-to-day economic survival. These are concrete rather than symbolic parables, unmistakably set in the desperate, fallen world that is the new Europe, land of failing safety nets and dwindling opportunity.
"La Promesse" is in fact the Dardennes' third narrative feature, although the brothers rightly consider it a new beginning. They made their fiction debut with the semi-experimental "Falsch" (1987), based on a stage play about Holocaust survivors, and followed it with "You're on My Mind" (1992), a melodrama about an unemployed steelworker, with similar themes as their later films but a heavier touch.
With "La Promesse," the story of a teenage boy (the Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) whose father (Olivier Gourmet, another familiar face in their films) runs a construction company that employs and exploits illegal immigrants, the Dardennes sought to return to the freedom of their documentary work. This meant, among other things, stripping away the cumbersome dictates of commercial production and allowing long rehearsal periods.
"La Promesse" introduces the Oedipal tensions that have played out in various father-son configurations across their films. In "The Son" (2002), Gourmet plays a grief-stricken father who comes into contact with his son's teenage killer; Renier has gone on to play grossly neglectful fathers in "L'Enfant" and "Kid With a Bike."
But "Rosetta" is the Dardenne film that most directly tackles the brothers' signature subject of work. In the opening sequence, Émilie Dequenne's titular heroine stomps through the hallways of the factory where she has just lost her job — the handheld camera, in close pursuit, establishes the unrelenting forward motion that defines the character and the film.
Cinema is said to have begun in 1895 when the Lumière brothers turned their camera on a procession of workers leaving the factory. More than a century later, the Dardennes, who started their career documenting labor movements and strikes, open their quintessential film with the plight of a worker fighting to remain in a factory.
In all their movies, the Dardennes are profoundly attuned to the mental and physical toll of daily labor, whether carpentry (in "The Son") or small-time grift ("L'Enfant"). "Rosetta," whose dogged protagonist trudges from one odd job to another, is one of the all-time great films about work and how it consumes and shapes our lives as both a means of survival and a badge of identity.
Put another way, few films have so vividly revealed the link between economic insecurity and existential terror.