Industrial reality far from the industry
When Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne won the Palme d’Or for their film Rosetta in 1999, it was seen by many as a starting point for a new kind of realism in European cinema. Portraying people at the margin of society in a very neutral manner, they have since made a name for themselves. Le fils (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2001) tells the story of a carpenter, Olivier, who takes in young men to work as trainees for him. One of them turn out to be the murderer of his son. The film centres around the relationship between this boy, Francis, and Olivier.
What does it mean to be human today? That is the question that drives the Dardenne brothers in their movie making. They want to distance themselves from the capitalist film industry, searching for the core of human life. Their characters are everyday working class people, acting rather neutral, presented without any fuss. Watching Le fils I am stuck by how ordinary looking the character of Olivier is – and how unusual it is to see someone that ordinary on screen. The Dardenne brother want to represent those who are not often embodied on screen.
To get to the notion of this new realism, one has to go back and look at former realist movements. Cesare Zavattini, the Italian neorealist, writes in 1953 that commercial films have a “mistrust of reality”, and the Dardenne brothers state that their style is a reaction against “loss of confidence in man”. Both want to take a step away from the industry, in the way the films are made (low budget, shot on location etc.) but also as to what is shown (marginalised people, industrial environments etc.). They have a strong social interest, and emphasise that their primal interest is people, rather than politics. Zavattini writes that the neorealist movement is driven by “a desire for understanding, for belonging, for participating – for living together, in fact”, and in a text written about the Dardenne brothers the author Emilie Bickerton writes that they “explore a certain emotion or predicament in a way that allows anyone, on the grounds of common humanity, to emphasise and see themselves through the characters on screen”.
What differentiates these two realist movements has mostly to do with the camera work. The Dardenne brother’s camera work seems spontaneous, as if the camera man just follows the actor without knowing his or her next move. This differentiates from the classical Hollywood camera work where the camera is always where it’s supposed to be, laying out the story for the viewer in the clearest possible way. In Le fils, we most often see the neck or the back of Olivier, instead of the face; this being a stylistic trait rather than bearing a narrative function. The shaky hand held camera is intense and feverish. Comparing with a film like Bicycle Thieves the camera is a much more active presence in Le fils.
By working with the camera in this way, the narrative is not crystal clear. There is little dialogue, no music, a lot of background sounds, and since the camera doesn’t help us in understanding the thoughts and feelings of the characters, we are left with many questions. This is what the Dardenne brothers want to achieve: this way, we get even more intrigued. In some scenes, there are obstacles for the camera. One example is a scene where Olivier tries to peek through a door to read from a paper lying on the desk. The camera looks through as well, but since Olivier has taken the better spot, he becomes an obstacle and we don’t get as good a view. I interpret this as a way to emphasise the realism of the situation, and as a way to play with the idea of reality and truth. We can never actually become Olivier, but a portrayal like Le fils might be the closest we can get.
Robert Sklar, ”The Terrible Lightness of Social Marginality: An Interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne”, Cineaste spring 2006.
Emilie Bickerton, ”Reinventing Realism: the Art and Politics of the Dardenne Brothers”, Cineaste spring 2006. Cesare Zavattini, ”Some Ideas on the Cinema”, in Critical Vision in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj, (Boston and New York: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2011).