All two human: the Dardenne brothers get a little bit less miserable

Human catastrophe has always loomed large in Dardenne movies, but now, after decades of onscreen misery, the Belgian brothers are begining to let in a little light

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 00:00

We begin with a chat about the last scene of the Dardenne brothers’ new film. Nobody is likely to confuse Two Days, One Night with a Miss Marple mystery, but we will, nonetheless, draw a veil over the details of the denouement. Suffice to say the beautifully crafted neo-realist fable does not end in any sort of joyous cavalcade.

Starring Marion Cotillard as a an ordinary woman threatened with the sack, the picture treads in similar territory to early classics by the Belgian directors such as Rosetta and The Son. It is, however, a little bit less miserable. Non?

“Yes, maybe,” Jean-Pierre says. “A friend of mine watched the end and he says: ‘It is a film where the main character loses her job and it is, for the Dardennes, a happy film.’ Ha ha!”

Luc creases up and joins in with his brother’s chortles. The translator has a laugh. I’m hooting. Come on in. It’s fun time with the Dardenne brothers.

This is not the first time it has been said. But little in the output of Jean-Pierre (63, a little broader of face) and Luc (60, square around the temples) would prepare you for the experience of meeting the brothers. Over the past 20 years, since they belatedly found rhythm with The Promise, they have perfected a school of hard naturalism that, though indebted to Ken Loach and the Italian neo-realists, is very much their own. Ordinary lives take in extraordinary tragedies while a mobile camera slopes behind the actors’ shoulders. They are the great sombre humanists of the age.

Yet the two men could hardly be jollier.

“My brother and I talk about this a lot,” Jean-Pierre says. “We have a friend, an actor, who makes everybody laugh the whole time. Then when he is on stage suddenly he is so serious. It all falls away. We are funny in real life? I think so, yes. But when working on a character, we get serious. Why is that? We don’t know? If you have an explanation, then tell us.”

Mind you, over the past two films, some shift in tone does appear to have been setting in. To that point, when watching the brothers’ films, the viewer was always aware that catastrophe was lurking at the protagonist’s elbow. The Kid with a Bike and Two Days, One Night allow in just a little more light.

“Oh, we are getting older,” Jean-Pierre says. “Maybe the films are getting more optimistic. That must be it. In this film somebody does say: ‘I am happy’. So that’s maybe true.”

The Dardennes took a circuitous route to their current renown. Born and raised in Liege, Neither had any great ambition to be a film-maker as a boy.

“No, Jean-Pierre wanted to be an archaeologist and I wanted to be a mechanic,” Luc says. “But those things are linked with what we do, maybe. One is about storytelling the other is about construction. So it’s maybe not so surprising.”

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