The Brothers Grim

05/27/2009 4:00 AM |

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