Have festival darlings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne been spoiling us with too much of a good thing? Last year's Cannes highlighted the first signs of a general indifference toward the beloved Belgian brothers, whose latest film, the excellent Lorna's Silence, got cold-shouldered by American critics for being too consistent with the rest of their oeuvre. As we await Lorna's stateside release in July, an extensive retrospective at Lincoln Center (featuring mostly new prints) offers the opportunity to reassess their work, the growing resistance to which serves merely as an indication of their profound influence on the past decade of filmmaking.
At a time when the idealization of handheld camerawork and nonprofessional acting as the keys to a higher form of cinematic truth has long since been called into question, the Dardennes' rough-hewn aesthetic can either be dismissed as a prime example of naïve realism, or praised as a revitalization of a discredited form. But verisimilitude isn't the only trick these directors have up their sleeve. One need only turn to the earliest offerings in the series to consider the range of other styles the duo has already explored. In the rarely screened documentaries that inaugurated their career, the Dardennes introduced themselves as shaggy-haired, politically engaged historians chronicling the struggles of the disenfranchised. Shot in video, these short essayistic pieces — Lorsque le bateau de Léon M. descendit la Meuse pour la première fois (1979) and Pour que la guerre s'achève, les murs devaient s'écrouter (1980) — commemorate the leftist movement in the francophone region of Seraing, where the brothers were born and raised.
The early works contain not only the powerful sense of place that has come to define the Dardennes' approach, but also a fixation on the ebb and flow of historical time that is largely absent from the present-tense urgency of their later masterpieces. As further evidenced in the Brechtian experimentations of Regard Jonathan (1983) and Falsch (1987), the Dardennes' first decade of filmmaking sought to establish a symbolic temporality in which painful memories, political anxieties and family psychodrama could be reenacted and reflected upon. In this first chapter of their career, the camera was less invested in capturing mundane life as it meets the naked eye than in probing a set of ideas, dramatized in elaborately metaphorical structures and the superimposition of disparate images.
After Je pense à vous (1992), an unsuccessful attempt at conventional narrative that the Dardennes themselves have all but disowned, La Promesse (1996) finally ushered in the golden period from which their best-loved fictions have emerged. Charting the spiritual maturation of a teenager who comes to the rescue of the illegal African immigrant his father exploits for labor, it laid the thematic groundwork for the films that followed, all of which share the same single-minded interest in how the Christian concepts of innocence, sin and redemption are complicated by the pressures of working-class life. Le Fils (2002) in particular stands out as one of the great films of the decade, and a perfect example of the Dardennes' camera at its most embodied, restless, and claustrophobic. The coarse textures and palate of sickly yellows and grays disguise the precision with which each shot is composed, and the elegant economy with which its story of a carpenter mentoring his son's murderer unfolds. Above all, this is a cinema concerned with the body's journey through space, as well as with the decisions and consequences that our movement through this world entails. It is in their unrelenting focus on the backs of heads, the creases in faces and the power and fragility of the human frame that the Dardennes deliver each of their films to the moment of moral crisis.
May 27-June 2 at the Walter Reade Theater