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In the Realm of the Reel: The Dardenne Brothers at Lincoln Center

I was late to the party: It was early 2006 and I had only been writing professionally for a few months when I first encountered the Belgium filmmaking tandem Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The film was L’Enfant, a Christian-infused moral tale involving a young man who sells his baby and his later attempts at buying it back. For a young film critic with a then-rudimentary taste for arthouse, it was some sort of revelation.

L’Enfant was the Dardennes’ fifth narrative feature, crisp and vivid in form and an outward rebuke to the emotional shallowness of commercial filmmaking. On the eve of the lovely Lorna’s Silence, their sixth feature which will see release in late July, the Film Society of Lincoln Center has embarked on an inspired retrospective of the brothers’ work to date, including a handful of shorts and early documentaries. Their influence having hit a climax in America recently with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and with a retrospective now underway at Lincoln Center in New York, it would seem the perfect time to reevaluate their modest yet all-the-more powerful oeuvre.

The die-hard gem here would be Falsch, their misguided first narrative. Adapted from the final play of Rene Kalisky, a Belgian Jew whose father died in Auschwitz, it involves an extended family of holocaust victims who meet up in an abandoned airport and proceed to shred each other emotionally. With its discombobulated structure and ham-fisted post-war minutiae, Falsch is strictly for their most ardent fans. This would make the leap to La Promesse, their second film and critical breakthrough, even more dazzling.

La Promesse, a potent ethnographic drama centered on a son’s rebellion against his slumlord father, is immediate and singular, existing on a plain of commonplace, everyday injustice, where characters are not martyrs but lone entities searching for a slice of redemption. Rosetta, their third feature, provides a diagram for their lean brand of moral mechanics; Christian allegory stripped of its mythology. The film won the Dardennes their first Golden Palm at Cannes for this tale of a young woman on the margins, trying to keep a job and handle her alcoholic mother. It also nabbed first-timer Émilie Dequenne a best actress award from the Cannes jury for her riveting and wholly devoted performance as the titular heroine.

Due to their devotion to hand-held camera work, the Dardennes have always been noted as documentary-like; a regressive term seeing as they haven’t made a documentary together since the early 1980s. The term would also seem to pin their diligent focus on character as a force of habit rather than a conscious decision. By the time The Son was released, however, it was obvious that their subtle and unencumbered storytelling was a style very much of their own ilk. Haunting and moving in its search for spiritual retribution and, ultimately, forgiveness, The Son unsentimentally considers a shop teacher (the brilliant character actor Olivier Gourmet, one of the Dardennes’ staple performers) who takes the boy who accidentally murdered his own son under his wing.

The early word out of last year’s Cannes was that Lorna’s Silence was a letdown, and in a very narrow-minded point of view, this is correct. Its tale of an Albanian immigrant wandering the streets of Belgium, owing money to everyone and with little hope of salvation, is not as apropos in its spiritual bartering nor is its central performance as decisively rendered as their last three films. It remains, however, a beautiful and well-observed film that fits snuggly into their exceptional body of work. That’s how transcendent the Dardennes have become in the 13 years since La Promesse: anything less than a masterpiece is considered a disappointment.

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