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May 17 - June 1

Realism Reinvented: The Cinema of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The deeply influential Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre (b. 1951) and Luc Dardenne (b. 1954) are frequently named as heirs to a long lineage of European realist cinema, with their celebrated quartet of recent films - La promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and The Child (2005) - triggering, for example, automatic citations of British kitchen sink drama and Italian neo-realism. Yet a far more instructive and insightful understanding of the Dardenne brothers’ films is obtained by reexamining the longer trajectory of their collaborative careers as a writer-director team. Indeed, the signature handheld immediacy and radically minimal narratives shared by the four latest films—and a major source of their raw power—draw specifically and more importantly from the brothers’ earlier roots in documentary filmmaking and experimental theater.

A closer examination of the Dardenne brothers’ rarely seen early work provides a crucial context for their recent films and a means to trace the gradual distillation of their signature style and thematic concerns. La promesse was the brothers’ third feature and was preceded most notably by a string of formally daring and politically engaged television documentaries, all shot on video and all confronting the issues of labor and the working class so crucial to the Dardennes’ latest work. No less engaged were the brothers’ first narrative features, albeit in radically different ways—turning from an innovative adaptation of a politically allegorical avant-garde stage play in Falsh (1987) to a more classical melodrama of working class struggle in You’re on My Mind (1992). This fascinating passage from documentary urgency through theatrical allegory and melodramatic theatricality contributes significantly to the rare balance achieved in the Dardennes’ recent films between formal experimentation and cinematic social consciousness, between their material weight and transcendental aura.

More closely than classical neo-realism, the Dardennes’ recent films approach the Bresson of Au hasard Balthasar or Mouchette by distilling their stories into almost mythical, mysterious tales of sacrifice and desire while still fully rendering the vivid details of labor and class. The Dardennes, who hail from the industrial suburb of Seraing, on Belgium’s Meuse River, remain fascinated by and committed to the specificities of the class struggle seen through the lens of the every day. In this way films such as The Son and The Child offer a type of transcendental materialism, grounding their clearly spiritual dimensions in a mode of existential parable about awakening political consciousness and the struggle to live, to survive and forgive.

Special thanks: Lucius Barre; Kent Jones and Isa Cucinotta, Film Society of Lincoln Center; Emmanuelle Lambert and Anne Lenoir, Wallonie-Bruxelles International; Lucien Castaing-Taylor, The Film Study Center, Harvard; Tania Antonioli, Les Films du Fleuve; Unifrance.


Sunday May 17 at 7pm

two boys on a motorbikeThe Child (L'enfant)

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
With Jérémie Renier, Deborah Francois, Jeremie Segard
Belgium/France 2005, 35mm, color, 95 min. French with English subtitles

Unlike the Dardennes’ previous features, which plunge immediately into the turmoil of the intense ethical crises suffered by their protagonists, The Child instead follows the inexorable course of a fateful decision taken by a young petty thief with an even younger girlfriend and a newborn. The film’s suspenseful denouement brilliantly reveals the assumption of a conscience to be a gradual and nuanced process rather than a single decisive act. The film’s profound lesson resonates against its scrupulously observed portrait of life at the bottom rungs of Seraing.

When the Boat of Léon M. Went Down the Meuse River for the First Time (Lorsque le bateau de Léon M. descendit la Meuse pour la première fois)

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Belgium 1979, video, color, 40 min. French with English subtitles

This early poetic documentary follows the 1960 general strike in Belgium’s Meuse River industrial region by juxtaposing archival footage of the events against interviews with locals who recount their memories of the strike and the labor union and government response. Structuring the film and serving as its meditative center is the solo, self-sufficient voyage of a former striker up the river to Liège in a hand-built boat.

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Monday May 18 at 7pm

man on tarmacFalsch

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
With Bruno Cremer, Jacqueline Bollen, Nicole Colchat
Belgium 1987, 35mm, color, 82 min. French with English subtitles

The Dardennes’ keen interest in theater, first evident in Look at Jonathan, gave way to their first feature-length film, an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical play by René Kalisky, a Belgian playwright of Polish descent. A reflection on the intersection of history and fate in the life of a Polish-Jewish family, the Falsches, Kalisky’s play centers on the unexpected and ghostly reunion— in the Purgatory of an abandoned airport—of various family members scattered or killed during World War II. The formal experimentation of the Dardennes’ documentaries and their sustained interest in avant-garde aesthetics clearly inform their striking debut feature.

Look at Jonathan (Regarde Jonathan)

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
Belgium 1983, video, color, 57 min. French with English subtitles

The Dardennes’ spirited portrait film depicts Jean Louvet, a Walloon dramatist who fuses Brechtian aesthetics with Sartrean existentialism to capture the working class experiences and heart of Belgium’s Francophone community during the mid- and late 20th century. An experimental biopic of sorts, Look at Jonathan uses excerpts from Louvet’s work, including some autobiographical writings, both to tell the story of his life and to document the work of his theater company in La Louvière.

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Satuday May 23 at 7pm

man and woman dancingYou’re on My Mind (Je pense à vous)

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
With Robin Renucci, Fabienne Babe, Tolsty
Belgium/France 1992, 35mm, color, 85 min. French with English subtitles

Five years after the notably avant-garde Falsch, the Dardennes’ second feature film, You’re on My Mind, abandons formal experimentation and returns instead to the path defined by the brothers’ earliest documentaries. The story of a steelworker in Seraing whose routine existence is shattered when he loses his job, You’re on My Mind follows the man’s swift descent into despondence that threatens to upend his family, especially his relationship to his wife. Admirers of the Dardennes’ later, mature style may be surprised by the lyricism, and even melodrama, of this film, providing a fascinating contrast with their subsequent efforts. Working from a script by veteran screenwriter and frequent Truffaut and Resnais collaborator Jean Gruault, the Dardennes embrace a mode of narrative classicism and work in a conventional mode they would subsequently reject.

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Sunday May 24 at 7pm

boy on mopedLa promesse

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
With Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo
Belgium 1997, 35mm, color 93 min. French with English subtitles

With La promesse, the Dardennes reoriented their filmmaking towards the rigor and intensity that would mark the rest of their work and bring them to international prominence. The avant-garde trappings of Falsch and the lyricism of You’re on my Mind are each replaced by a detailed, ominivorous realism anchored by the brick-by-brick rhythm of everyday dialogue and an inspired handheld camera. La promesse follows a young man over the course of a few crucial days as he helps his father manage a crew of illegal immigrants for a construction job and is suddenly forced by an accident to choose between his awakening conscience and his loyalty to his father.

Lessons from a University on the Fly (Leçons d’une université volante)

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
Belgium 1982, video, color, 55 min. French with English subtitles

Lessons compiles a series of portraits of Polish immigrants living in Belgium, filmed for television by the Dardennes. Linking the Dardennes’ documentaries and their depiction of the beleaguered protagonists of their subsequent fiction films, these sketches of difficult lives together mark the beginning of the Dardennes’ interest in the lives of immigrants, a theme that runs from La promesse through their latest film, Lorna’s Silence.

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Monday May 25 at 7pm

man outsideFor the War to End, the Walls Should Have Crumbled (Pour que la guerre s’achève, les murs devaient s’écrouler)

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
Belgium 1980, video, color, 52 min. French with English subtitles

Like When the Boat…, this documentary looks back to the momentous events of Belgium’s general strike in 1960, focusing here on the efforts of Edmond G. and colleagues at the Cockerill steel plant in Seraing to organize and publish a workers’ newspaper in secret between 1961 and 1969. A stirring depiction of communal resistance, For the War to End… also offers an insightful portrait of the Dardennes’ own hometown, revisiting the sites of labor and tracing the routes of the newspaper’s circulation, providing a poetic tribute to Seraing’s industrial urban landscape.

R… No Longer Answers (R... ne répond plus)

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
Belgium 1982, video, color, 52 min.
French with English subtitles

Like For the War to End…, this documentary reveals the Dardennes’ fascination with alternative modes for sharing and distributing information. Where the earlier film recounts the history of a workers’ newspaper, R…No Longer Answers introduces its audience to a vast network of amateur, independent and pirate radio broadcasters. The film is a collage, filmed at a variety of locations, from radio studios to snowy landscapes where transmitters are set up. Just as the broadcasters bring together far-flung communities of listeners, the Dardennes’ montage creates a whole out of this network of spaces and people.

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Special Event Tickets $10
Sunday May 31 at 7pm

man and boy eatingThe Son (Le fils)

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Appearing in Person
With Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Isabella Soupart
Belgium/France 2002, 35mm, color, 103 min. French with English subtitles

In a departure from the earlier features’ intense focus on a single protagonist, The Son intertwines the stories of two men of different generations: a middle-aged carpenter and his young apprentice whose relationship returns the Dardennes to the father-son dynamic of La promesse, but with the crucial difference that these two men are bonded not by family, but by the blood of a past crime. A meditation on the relation between ethics and time, The Son intensely observes two people whose exact relationship only becomes clear over time and is more overdetermined that it seems at first glance.

Il court…il court le monde

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Appearing in Person
With Jean-Paul Dermont, John Dobrynine, François Duisinx
Belgium 1987, 35mm, 10 min. French with English subtitles

The Dardennes’ first fictional effort was this short, dark satire about the modern obsession with speed. Set in the world of local television news, Il court… manages to link the Futurists’ celebration of technology with two of the Dardennes’ signature concerns: the sharing and dispersal of information in the contemporary world addressed in their early work, and the human experience of time and duration explored in their recent features.

audio from evening Listen to this evening's introduction, discussion and Q&A.

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Monday June 1 at 7pm

young womanRosetta

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Appearing in Person
With Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux
Belgium/France 1999, 35mm, color, 94 min. French with English subtitles

Rosetta is a young woman in constant motion, living in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother and consumed by a simmering anger and her seemingly endless search for a job. Like so many of the Dardennes' protagonists, Rosetta finds herself trapped, forced to choose between moral and economic survival. What might become a sociological treatise in the hands of less deft filmmakers becomes an absorbing cinematic parable about the consequential weight of decisions.

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