Tragic Destinies
An Interview with the Dardenne Brothers
By Damon Smith

Late for an interview, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne amble out of an elevator with a bemused, nonchalant air, smiling politely through introductions. It’s May, and they’re in New York to promote the release of their latest film, Lorna’s Silence, and to participate in Q&As for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective Beyond L’Enfant: The Complete Dardenne Brothers. Just arrived from their midday appearance on The Leonard Lopate Show, the impishly handsome Belgian brothers crack wise with their publicist, eliciting a collective burst of laughter. Then Jean-Pierre looks puzzled, musing as we shake hands, “Ah, but we know you. We’ve had a nice chat. Where was it?” Toronto, actually, eight months prior, an eternity for most filmmakers doing endless rounds of press at high-profile festivals. “Names escape me, at my age,” he confesses, “but with the face, I’m very good.”

Indeed, such physiognomic scrutiny is a vital component of the Dardennes’ vision. Widely admired for tense, tightly plotted films like Rosetta and The Son, the brothers have elevated close observation of actors’ bodies into a stylized method, developing a meticulously constructed and relentlessly restless aesthetic of seeing. Back in the Eighties, after finishing their studies (Jean-Pierre was in drama; Luc, philosophy), the duo got their start making a series of low-budget video documentaries tracing the history of left-wing dissent and working-class struggle in their hometown of Seraing. Since La Promesse, their breakthrough feature, they’ve told stories about hard-bitten characters and underclass types caught up in emotionally shattering moral dilemmas or hideous deceptions, where the path to resolution is fraught with issues of life and death. Their influence can be felt in any number of recent films, from the Palme d’Or–winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days to Lance Hammer’s Ballast. But while many younger filmmakers have looked to the Dardennes’ frenetic mode of naturalism for inspiration, few have matched their ability to wring raw emotional truth from minimalist scenarios that engage gnarled questions of moral choice and human decency.

Lorna’s Silence marks a decisive turn in their output, following a young Albanian immigrant (Arta Dobroshi) involved in a criminal scheme to secure citizenship for herself and a Russian mobster through a bogus marriage to Claudy (Jérémie Regnier), a scurvy heroin addict destined to vanish one way or another. As always, things unfold in an elliptical manner, the plot structure revealing itself in scene-by-scene gradients. But for the first time, the writer-directors introduce a bold psychological twist (SPOILERS follow) that gives the tail end of this dramatic thriller an almost allegorical quality. Some reviewers carped that this was a grossly misguided impulse; others proclaimed it a maturing of their vision. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne sat down to discuss this and other aspects of the film at the offices of Sony Pictures Classics.

Reverse Shot: Characters in your narrative features often face crises of conscience. And certainly Lorna is no exception. But I wonder if you’d agree that in this instance it’s given a stronger psychological cast, in that her guilt almost manifests as a form of mental illness.

Luc Dardenne: Yes. We wanted to see in the character of Lorna somebody who, even though she helps Claudy and wants to save him and all that, still doesn’t talk to him. She keeps silent. She could have told him what was going to happen and said, “Let’s run away together.” But she didn’t. Even though she doesn’t kill him, she still feels the guilt. And I think the child that she invents for herself comes from that guilt. You could say that it’s a kind of madness. At the beginning, she’s relying on fake things to lead the police astray, to lead Claudy astray. There’s duplicity with Fabio, Claudy knows it’s a fake marriage, but she doesn’t tell Claudy he’s going to die. So in a way, this fake child that she creates at the end is a way for her to connect with a greater humanity.

RS: Since La Promesse, you’ve often said how important the actors’ bodies are, how important it is for both of you to coordinate the movements of your actors. And here we don’t cling as closely to the actors. So I wonder what the impetus was behind that shift in your compositional strategy?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: We don’t cling as much to the character because Lorna is a strange woman with a secret and with strategies. We had to keep a distance from her to watch the secret unfold and come to life. And we also wanted to look at her evolve in the city among other people, and it seemed to us that it gave more strength to her secret to do it this way—how she interacts with Fabio and Claudy. We never get into her energy, but the body still has as much importance, even though it’s further away.

RS: There’s often an atmosphere of distress in your narrative films. There’s an anxiety, almost a thriller aspect, in the way they’re constructed. Do you think that keeping an audience on the edge of their seat is a way of engaging them with a film about people they might not otherwise care about or want to see?

LD: No, no. But as soon as there’s a murder involved, you’re going in the direction of suspense. It’s not really to get people on the edge of their seats. What we’re interested in is trying to see how far a character will go when everything around her tells her, “Let him die.” Is she going to resist that pressure or not? Everyone is telling her to let it happen: He’s a drug addict, who cares if he dies of an OD? There’s generally no inquiry, no police investigation when somebody dies of an overdose. The first idea is often that it’s a suicide. Rather than a thriller, it’s really asking whether the character is going to go to the end of this plan. In other words, is she going to kill or not? But it’s more the moral dimension of things.

RS: Preparing for our conversation, I read an essay by Emmanuel Levinas called “Ethics and Spirit,” in which he wrote, “Murder is possible only when one has not looked the Other in the face. The impossibility of murder is not real, but moral.” And that seems to resonate very clearly with Lorna’s path in this film.

LD: Yeah. I think that person looking back at us forbids us from killing. The face of the Other is the part of the Other that is the weakest, and it’s also the part that invites us to murder. That’s how I understand Levinas’s work. The fact that killing is forbidden is something our characters live with in the film, but it’s very different from the reality of life. Levinas says that at some point, it is the Other’s gaze, the other person looking at us, who calls to us in order not to die. And in a way, Lorna knows that Claudy has to die. That’s what she sees in the end.

RS: Would you say that Lorna engages in an act of faith, then, when she decides to help Claudy— when she gradually comes to recognize his humanity?

JD: Lorna has to pretend that they’re living together as a couple. They live in the same place. Eventually, this whole situation traps her, it sort of turns on her. And the fact that she lives with him is what’s going to shape her in the end. And it happens without her realizing it. In the film, there are a few moments where you start to feel that things are getting more precise. The whole thing with the hospital, when he asks her to take him and then when she gives him something to drink, she starts to realize that she has to save him. But she also doesn’t want to lose her hope of, you know, the snack bar and the money. And it’s a little bit like, in the apartment, everything that’s fake generates something real. In other words, there’s this set-up that begins in their relationship, right, which is fake. And eventually, a real relationship builds. And she’s going to tell herself, “I can’t let this guy die.”

RS: Let me return to my earlier question about how suspense might work on viewer sympathy. Because in the films where that attribute is most heightened—L’Enfant, The Son—the audience feels the desperation of these characters.

LD: Maybe what you mean is “destiny.” In other words, he’s in a situation where he has to do this, and the question is whether he’s going to be able to turn things around and resist or not. In a tragedy, everything is pushing the main character in one direction, and the question is will he able to turn around? That’s how tragedies work. The events unfold and force a character in one direction toward death until the end, when at the last minute he or she will understand what’s happening. It’s necessary—there’s no other way for things to unfold. That’s how we do it. I’m not sure it’s to show desperation.

RS: One of the ways you achieve tension in these films is by leaving out crucial elements. For instance, when Claudy dies, it takes a while for the audience to catch up and realize what’s happened. Your longtime editor Marie-Hélène Dozo is obviously crucial in helping you achieve that. How closely do you work with her to create those gaps in the narrative, where we have to guess what’s occurred?

JD: It’s not in the editing! What you point out is one of the first ideas we had when we started to understand what kind of story we wanted to tell [in Lorna’s Silence]. In terms of this particular example that you give, you had the answer. There are gaps sometimes that are already written into the script, and so there are scenes that sometimes have not been shot at all, that we didn’t want to shoot. Then there are sometimes gaps that we work on in the editing that we decide to add or not.

LD: I’d like to add that, at the beginning, our exposition tends to be long. And Marie-Hélène forces us to break that rhythm. So they’re not gaps in the storytelling so as much as in continuity.

RS: The Film Society of Lincoln Center has mounted this impressive career retrospective, and many people are seeing your numerous television documentaries and two earliest features, Falsch and Ja pense à vous, for the first time. What do you see as the connecting point between your documentary work and the narrative features?

JD: In our documentaries, we focused on moments in history that we had known as kids or that preceded us with the workers’ movement, but essentially we always focused on individual trajectories, individual portraits. And maybe that’s the link with our fiction work. Maybe I’m forcing the issue a little bit, but we work on portraits. That’s what Lorna’s Silence is, though we [surround her with] other people. In L’Enfant it’s Bruno and Sonia; it’s Rosetta in Rosetta. Maybe that’s the link.

RS: What spurred your transition from documentaries to fiction features?

LD: When we were shooting documentaries, we realized we were always trying to set up the characters, we were trying to make them do what we wanted them to do, and they’d always question this. Why? And quite rightly. We basically wanted to create fiction, but with documentary characters. And so all we could hope that, in their chatting with us, they would come to do what we wanted. So we realized that we wanted to work with the actors to tell our own stories within our framework.

RS: One is reminded of Bresson in watching these films. Some of your methodologies are an inheritance of that lineage. In what sense do you regard yourselves as spiritual filmmakers?

JD: Big question. I’d say that we’re interested in seeing how all these characters, who are somewhat autistic, in fact, and who don’t realize that the world around them is peopled with human beings, start to open up to others, and what happens when they do. We try to tell in this film how Lorna begins to realize that Claudy is a human being, and that she loves him, and what happens then.

RS: What’s important to you about using actors like Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier repeatedly, across films?

LD: When you have friends, you like to meet up with them again to chat and catch up. Rather than doing that, we wanted to shoot with them again. We like working with them, they’ve brought a lot to our films, and they’re great actors. Jérémie is magnificent as the junkie. He lost 30 pounds for the role, he accepted everything we asked of him, he refused other roles to work with us. Olivier wasn’t given a major role in this movie, but we didn’t want him to forget us and wanted him to be part of the adventure.

RS: You have a very productive collaborative relationship as filmmakers. You’re also family. What tends to be the kind of thing you disagree about, and how do you handle those kinds of conversations, especially when one of you feels strongly about going in a certain direction, and the other might not? How do you resolve that?

LD: We don’t really disagree because after all we’re trying to make the same film. At the beginning, we may say, ‘Oh, I’d rather do a movie about this, I prefer this or that,’ and we talk. But once we’ve started, we’ve basically said, okay, this is it and we both feel it deeply. And then we never really disagree. One of us may suggest something different, and we’ll go ahead with it. We’ll see in the editing whether it works or not. But basically, we don’t disagree. We’re not each trying to make our own film.

RS: What in particular fascinates you about marginal social types?

JD: I don’t know. Indeed it is people like that we want to film; we want to tell their stories. They feed into our desire to make films. We want to tell you about their adventures. Maybe it’s because they’re very chatty people, and they just have to make their way in life without the conscience that all the “right” people have. They don’t have to be right, always. I think people who are always right get on our nerves a bit [chuckles].

RS: Do you think there’s an ethics to realism or a certain tradition of realism—Rossellini’s, for instance—that matches your personal politics?

LD: As filmmakers, what we strive for is not to be above or beyond our characters, not to dominate our characters, and not to show them as role models or images. We try to preserve in them a dark side, and really be with them and among them. Another answer, to come back to the desperation you were talking about earlier, is that when you create an intrigue in the end it’s really to lock the character up and to kill that character. And the question is, how is the character going to be able to stop that plot or that intrigue from killing him? And that’s what you have with the character of Lorna, or Bruno in L’Enfant or Igor in La Promesse. We hope that we’re able to find something that’s going to allow the character to make his or her way out and find her own humanity.