Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne • Directors
by Matthieu Reynaert Cinergie.be
09/09/2005 - Recently granted admission to the rather elite club of two-times winners of the Palme d’Or ("Golden Palm"), courtesy of their latest masterpiece, L’Enfant [trailer, film focus], the Dardenne Brothers, smiling away, are always in complete agreement (well, almost always…), taking it in turn to reply to questions and speaking with the same confidence that highlights their work.
Cinergie : Luc, in the book which bears your name, you write that, while shooting Le Fils [trailer], Rosetta was the albatross around your neck. Was that again the case while shooting L’Enfant or did praise for Le Fils relieve you of that particular burden ? And, above all, now that you probably have a new film in the pipeline, is L’Enfant proving to be a monkey on your back ?
Luc Dardenne : (laughs) Remember the old Léo Ferré song "It’s tough lugging a kid around the whole summer" ? Winning the prize at Cannes certainly did have an effect first time around and maybe even last time. But I do believe that we are two guys who betray a certain nervosity in our everyday lives, maybe even sometimes to our detriment. The most important thing is to try to retain a certain independence. I think that by talking about the film, as we’re doing with you, and as we’ll be doing until the end of November in the press at large, lets us shrug off the film, the prize, everything, and helps prepare us for a new start. As Truffaut used to say: "Filmmakers manage failure more easily than success". And it’s true. I think that success can make you soft, dropping you into a certain comfort zone where you think that everything in the garden is rosy, but it can also paralyse you, leaving you with that "I-want-to-do-something-else-but-will-it-be-as-good ?" kind of feeling. They’re not real problems and you just have to turn a blind eye to them. Let’s hope we manage !
Thanks to your two Palmes d’Or, you have, in a way, become standard-bearers for the Belgian cinema, which is flattering for the powers that be, but, even after Rosetta, in order to finance your films, you’re still obliged to take the French shilling. Isn’t that somewhat paradoxal ?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : That’s the fate of the industry in small countries all over, ours being all the smaller given the fact that it’s culturally divided in two and sometimes even three. What we’re left with is four million people. Financing is split in much the same way even if, proportionally, there’s slightly less available than in France. And so we filmmakers from small countries have no choice but to seek partners abroad, although that is something we can turn to our advantage.
Luc Dardenne: That’s Europe for you !
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : It’s an advantage to be able to, or rather, to have to – "able" is another story – seek partners outside, provided, of course, that partnership does not entail hardship. Thankfully, that has never happened to us. None of our partners since La Promesse has forced unwelcome locations or actors on us. If we have to compromise on the technical crew, that’s no bad thing, as we have technician friends working in France and who are French. But our hand has never been forced, and that’s obviously a great thing, long may it continue, with respect both to people and places. That’s what really matters.
You’ve been associates throughout your writer-director careers. United as you are, can either or both of you ever imagine the one or the other of you going solo ?
Luc Dardenne : I don’t think so, no. We’ve been working together for thirty years now. At the start on our portraits, reports and documentaries, and then our fictional films. We’ve worked together ever since meeting (Armand) Gatty, back in 73.
Do any of your films "belong" to the one more than to the other, and has either of you been the majority contributor ?
Luc Dardenne : I think not. I wouldn’t do that without my brother and I think he feels the same.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : Not at all, I think I’d be better off on my own ! So does he, but he wouldn’t dare say so to my face !
Luc Dardenne : (bursts out laughing)
Directing duos are more the exception than the rule...
Luc Dardenne : Yes, but we’ve always done the same things. Whenever one does one thing and the other something else, at any given moment the one could say "Hey! I’m gonna try and see if I can’t manage to do what you’ve done, something I’ve never been able to do on a film". But the thing is, we can both turn our hand to everything. So I just wouldn’t ever feel frustrated. The only thing we haven’t tried is acting...
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : Maybe next time...
Luc Dardenne : Actually, his nibs studied drama, so he could act, but he says he doesn’t want to ! He says that I say he couldn’t act his way out of a brown paper bag ! But it’s not true !
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : (laughs)
Another label you’re often stuck with is that of making "social-issue films". Admittedly, once again, the environment of L’Enfant can be seen for what it is but, looking at the big picture, isn’t survival the true subject of all your films and the thriller your true genre ? That’s particularly true of your last opus.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : By claiming that, you’re actually labelling us again, but I take it as a compliment ! It’s often said as a by-the-by, but maybe it’s heartfelt. Because we choose characters marginalised by society, people do have a tendency to come out with "Ah, it’s a social-issue film", but the actions of Bruno (Jérémie Rénier) are not dictated by need or by economics and are not, as could be the case in certain places, his only means of survival. And if we’d chosen middle-class characters, we’d have heard "Ah, psychological drama", because the middle classes "do" psychology and the rest don’t (laughs) ! At the same time the choice undeniably presupposes a way of looking at the world, at society today.
How is the link between you and the marginalisation that you depict in your films established? In L’Enfant, we are left with the impression of a quasi-clinical realism when we watch the hoodlums in their altercations and petty crimes. How do you study this environment ?
Luc Dardenne : We don’t study it… (pensive) I’d say that we have a faculty which all people who tell stories of events that they have not personally experienced must have, one of being able to put oneself in other people’s shoes, of imagining them, by reading what lies beneath the headlines, the court reports, and novels, or by watching television reports about people. Or by direct contact with them … We didn’t meet a Bruno, but we did meet people whom we found a little … How can I put this ? That we found a little different, or larger than life. We met people who resurfaced in La Promesse, Rosetta,… sure. I think that that’s as much a part of filmmaking, too, even though I’m speaking for ourselves here as there are no laws carved in stone. I think that what distinguishes our films is that we, too, have "got a life" outside the industry.
You refuse to see it as a microcosm.
Luc Dardenne : You’ve got it in one. We produce documentaries, so we have in any case to take an interest in what’s going on around us … And then in our private lives, we don’t live in a cocoon where we only talk shop, and go watch movies. Although we have nothing against going to see films, obviously ! But one does require constant reality checks. Give lectures, meet documentary filmmakers, watch their pictures, … An independent American filmmaker, à la Robert Wise, acquainted with the Hollywood of the 70s, once said : "What I had to beware most of was a kind of luxury, of general comfort, when searching for financial back-up and actors, all of which ended up sending me to sleep. With all this stuff, you end up wrapped in cotton wool". You’ve got to beware of that in the film industry.
You do not shirk from discussing fatherhood here. It’s been a leitmotif of all your films, ever since Je Pense à Vous, and one you’ve been consistent about. Does your being true blood brothers afford you a more comprehensive insight than your everyday “standalone” filmmaker?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : (quietly) I doubt it. The subject comes up in Kazan’s films, too. Shakespeare had no brothers and yet… Pialat, Faulkner…
Luc Dardenne : (quietly) Maybe we’re beyond all that… Films made by brothers working together undoubtedly involve, somewhere along the line, their father and mother.
Could the subject reach its zenith in one of your wish-list projects, the life of Jesus ? Would you deal with it in relation to His Father, who is kind of famous in His own right ?
Luc Dardenne : (laughs)Which ? The carpenter ?
Luc Dardenne : (bursts out laughing) No, when we spoke of the life of Jesus it was with the intention of recounting his life NOT according to the Gospels. The life of a young man of twenty, twenty-five, thirty. He didn't get around that much, and that's what interests us, too. His travels took him to, what, three towns before he got to Jerusalem, where he died. What interests us is the everyday life of the man, but you’d have to see, discover all existing traces and all the things that have been said about him, and then decide on the best way to resurrect that life. A simple life, of a man who speaks, who speaks out, who gets angry, who gets furious ! I don’t think we’d have to film his Passion. Because that’s the story, how to turn an individual into the Son of God and an official religion, against Judaism, … You’d have to try to stop just when he’s being sentenced, but the Passion is something which, perhaps, shouldn’t be done. It’d be pointless.
But it’s already been done !
Luc Dardenne : It has, you’re right ! (bursts out laughing) And my brother has actually a tale to tell on that subject !
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : I was sitting outdoors with someone this morning, just chatting, when someone else arrived and asked who I was. And the first person said : "The Passion". (smiles) And the other guy says, "Wow! Bravo! Loved it!" ! (both burst out laughing)
Text redrafted with the kind permission of the author
This interview can be seen at : www.cinergie.be