Monday 2 March 2020

Reflecting Realism: An Interview with the Dardenne Brothers

The Son (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) works as a lone carpentry instructor at a vocational training centre for at-risk youth. He is bothered by a sore back and an inability to communicate with others effectively. However, he has found a way to survive in a nondescript apartment in his own quiet way. He appears to be uninterested in anything other than his work. 

Olivier's routine is upended when Francis (Morgan Marinne), a sixteen-year-old recently released from a juvenile detention centre, arrives. The teacher realises the boy is the one who murdered his small son five years ago during a robbery. The same day, Olivier's ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart) calls to announce her pregnancy and decision to marry her lover. His reaction to her demonstrates that they have had difficulty grieving the loss of their son and that this schism resulted in their separation. To summarise, Olivier's stiff body reveals burdens he has struggled to bear and even more difficult to release. 

At first, the teacher is adamant about not having Francis in his class, but he eventually relents. The young man is serious about pursuing a career in carpentry. Olivier steals the keys to his place after discovering where he lives. He lies in the boy's bed for a brief moment. He later meets Francis at a fast food restaurant and impresses him with his ability to judge distances with his eye. 

The two go on a trip to the mill to purchase wood for the training center's projects. The boy approaches Olivier about becoming his mentor, but the teacher requires some clarification first. He interrogates him about his stay in the detention centre. Francis describes the robbery and strangling a boy who refused to let go of him as he attempted to steal a car radio. Olivier is desperate to hear Francis express regret, but none is forthcoming. When they arrive at the mill, the atmosphere is charged with tension, and the teacher's body language oozes with anger and impending violence. 

The Son is a haunting parable that contains numerous instances of quiet dignity. However, only the most daring filmgoer will be able to navigate Alain Marcoen's hand-held camera work, which is heavily focused on Olivier's neck. There is no music accompanying this master woodworker's daily activities. Nonetheless, the Dardenne brothers have crafted a touching storey of moral imagination in an austere and unusual manner, concluding with an unexpected grace note that defies precise measurement.

The Son (2002) was Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s fifth fiction feature following the international success of La Promesse (1996), and Rosetta (1999). They are credited with introducing a unique realistic aesthetic into European narrative cinema, drawing precise social portrayals characterized by restless camerawork, detailed performances and a concern with the urban dispossessed. In the following extract the filmmakers discuss The Son and related topics in an interview first published in Cineaste magazine in 2003. 

Cineaste: The relationship between parents and children seems to be at the heart of your films – ‘La Promesse’, ‘Rosetta’, and now ‘The Son’. Why?

Luc Dardenne: It was the father who interested us the most. What is a father? What does it mean to be a father? Of course, for there to be a father there has to be a son, or a daughter. In La Promesse, the father, Roger, is outside the law – he is illegal, he traffics in immigrants; he takes up space in the unemployment line; he lies so that he can cut in front of people. He lets a man die and pulls his son Igor into the scheme, making him an accessory. He treats his son as if he were an accomplice, a member of the same gang. But he does not show his son the rules. He is not teaching him how to grow up, to become a man. He is teaching him to become a crook and simply a kind of friend, an associate.

Murder, however, is not what a father is supposed to teach. The father – well the parents, really, because there is also obviously the mother – are the ones who say to a child, ‘Do not kill.’ In La Promesse, it is actually because of Roger that Igor is able to find another ’parent’ and thus to free himself from the coercive relationship with his father. And it is a woman, Assita the foreigner, who is instrumental in accomplishing this change. Because of her Igor discovers guilt. He comes to regret having participated in a murder with his father and learns that not everything is permitted. Assita assumes the role of the father, the adult who says, ‘No. Not that. This, yes, but not that. Right and wrong are different, you cannot confuse them.’

La Promesse (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
La Promesse was the moral trajectory of a boy. The same is true in The Son. Olivier is haunted by the murder of his son by this boy, Francis. He feels somehow that it is legitimate to want to avenge oneself; what becomes illegitimate is finding satisfaction in it. How will Olivier withstand the action of not avenging himself? He has become a kind of father for Francis – even though he is the father of the child who died. He has transformed his own son into Francis. Can he teach, bequeath, his trade to this boy? Certainly, the greatest lesson Olivier gives the teenager is not killing him. That is what can save this kid – teaching him that murder is an act that only perpetuates itself from generation to generation. Perhaps this is the reason why Francis approaches Olivier at the end, because Olivier did not kill him. It is not in order to ask forgiveness. Olivier does not say he forgives him. It is more as if the boy is thinking, ‘He didn’t kill me. Normally he would have. But he didn’t.’ That is the lesson the boy learns.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: This is a story about transmission.

LD: Yes, about what one gives to the next generation. We do not wish to get carried away with accusations against adults, against parents; but, as La Promesse suggests, we feel that these days it is as if we adults no longer want to die to allow the generation coming after us to live. In order to educate someone, you have to know how to die so that he or she can live; so that, simply put, they can take your place. We adults want to be immortal, we want not to die. Somehow it is as if, when all is said and done, we have this desire to eat our children, like the Greek god, Cronos. In short, we have nothing to say to our children anymore unless it is, ‘Hey, go play, get out of our hair! We like you. We give you birthday parties. We do everything you want, but we have absolutely nothing to say to you. We have nothing to pass on to you.’ That is a bit of what we felt and what we attempted to show, how adults were trying to be adolescents and not fathers, not mothers – just buddies.

La Promesse (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Cineaste: A question about ‘The Son’: generally speaking, films that explore the theme of forgiveness in any serious manner are not common in the history of cinema. How was it that you decided to develop a project around this topic?

LD: Actually, our idea was not to write a scenario about pardon but rather about the interdiction against murder, and about desire as well. Obviously, if an act is forbidden, the desire to commit it must also exist – otherwise the act would not be forbidden. It was Olivier who attracted us. We asked ourselves what a human being is and came to the definition that certainly a human being is an individual who succeeds in not killing. Because killing is a human possibility. We wanted to see how we could push Olivier to the point of killing this adolescent and then have him not do it. How someone could remain human in such circumstances – that is what interested us. Olivier is no angel. If the boy were to say, ‘Yes, I regret what I did,’ Olivier would have become a real bastard if he just simply killed him. But suppose that the boy gets down on his knees, cries, asks forgiveness? Olivier might say, ‘Well, OK, fine – goodbye.’

However, this kid does not do that. He is not conscious of what he did; he even seems to think it was a matter of small importance. This provokes Olivier. So even though he asks himself why not teach the boy his craft, why not help this kid as he has others, we have to ask ourselves if Olivier did not, in his heart, unconsciously wish to avenge himself after all. And then he finds himself faced with the possibility of committing murder. I think that when Olivier almost kills Francis, but then gets up, he is ashamed because he almost became like the boy. He almost became a murderer, too. Killing, then, is a human possibility. It is easy. Well, difficult too, because you leave traces; you have to hide the body. That part is complicated; the killing is easy. Olivier realizes that he was almost caught in a repetition. For us the film is about how to get out of this repetition.

La Promesse (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Cineaste: Memory seems to be a central theme in ‘The Son’. The father has too many recollections and the boy practically none.


JPD: Yes, and you could say that Francis’s body seems to remember. He is not well and has to take medications in order to sleep. You could also say that the entire journey Olivier makes in the film is to free himself from these memories. Life returns a bit at the end of the film and begins to reestablish its prerogatives. Olivier is a man so caught up in his memories that they have become a prison for him. This is not so in the case of his ex-wife. She has not forgotten, but she has begun to live again. Not Olivier. In spite of his involvement helping his students, teaching them a trade, he continues to be obsessed by his memories. They are the only thing that interests him. Why did he decide to teach in that kind of school – a school where he is likely to meet someone like Francis? If he chose to teach there it is because one day he said to himself, perhaps unconsciously, that he was going to meet his son’s murderer.

Cineaste: So when Olivier forces Francis to admit that he had killed a child, this is not necessarily meant as an act of charity towards the youth? Although, even if Olivier is acting out of his own interests, such a verbal admission is still, nonetheless, a charitable act that will free Francis and allow him to take up his life again and to grow up.

JPD: Of course. It represents a way out for both of them. But a way out does not mean forgetting – it means being able to continue to live. You can go on living without forgetting.

Rosetta (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Cineaste: The sense of Olivier as a carpenter is very strong in your film. Why did you choose to give him this particular profession?

LD: In fact, in our first drafts we made Olivier a cook because we wanted something alive – preparing food, cooking, nourishing – to contrast with the presence of death in the story. But then we got a little scared of the knives because that was becoming a bit symbolic. As soon as Olivier would have gone to pick up a knife and with the audience’s knowledge that the boy had killed – the effect would have been dreadful! The idea of a carpenter came from the fact that carpenters are always measuring. Once we had decided on a carpenter the scenario was easy to do because we knew what woodworkers are, how skillful they are, how they wear overalls with a special pocket for their folding ruler, how they use a pencil to mark. And woodworking as a choice was interesting, too, because carpentry shops really exist in these schools for social rehabilitation.

Most significantly we chose carpentry as a trade for Olivier because in the end – if you consider the film in terms of a purely cinematographic sense of form – you have a man and a boy, and between them a murder that is of special significance to Olivier. How will they be able to approach each other? They are closed up in a car, for example. How will we be able to calculate, to measure the distance between these two bodies? We have that night scene where Francis measures the distance between his foot and Olivier’s. And when the moment comes for them to touch each other, will it be to forgive or to kill? Thinking about carpentry really allowed us to understand what we were trying to do in this film.

Rosetta (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Cineaste: In ‘The Son’ there seems to be the suggestion that, beyond physical constructions, Olivier is also bedeviled by building problems of a more metaphysical nature, such as the challenge he has faced for five years to reconstruct a meaningful life for himself after the death of his son. Olivier appears to come to the conclusion, perhaps not consciously, that Francis is salvageable building material in the sense that the youth is capable of building a life as a responsible adult. Are there hints here of religious allegory? Might your film be a kind of morality play for the modern world?

LD: Certainly when we set out to make this film we were aware that Christ was the son of a carpenter; and, therefore, that his father must have taught him a little of the trade. And that Christ died on a wooden cross. However, that was not our point of departure. I can understand how a Christian might say he or she sees the story as being about forgiveness. Why not? We, however, did not take the pardon all the way to its conclusion because we saw the main problem as being Olivier himself. At the end of the film, the protagonist does not kill the boy, whom he has forcibly restrained; later, after he has been released, Francis then approaches Olivier. Olivier is now able to teach the lad his trade.

These actions might be understood as a kind of forgiveness by some people; but Olivier does not say, ‘I forgive you’ to the boy, and the boy does not say, ‘I ask your pardon.’ To have a scene of forgiveness, it would have been necessary for the boy to ask for it. And there is the question we obviously asked ourselves – can Olivier grant forgiveness in his son’s stead? No. We did think that Olivier’s being able to teach his trade was not really such an insignificant decision. Perhaps in twenty years, when the boy will be a thirty-something-year-old man, he will write Olivier a letter thanking him for not having killed him. At that point he will understand fully all that he does not understand now.

The Son (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Cineaste: Why are there so many silences and so little dialogue in your films?

JPD: In fact, The Son is a film about the difficulty of speaking: Olivier has difficulty saying, ‘It was my son you killed,’ and Francis has difficulty saying what he had done. We are more interested in trying to give meaning to a scene by the way we film the relations between the characters’ bodies and what gestures a character makes – how he passes a cup to someone else, how he pours coffee into his cup. This is more interesting than presenting actions as pretexts for talking. Words come afterwards, when you cannot do anything else. In general I think there is too much talking in movies; it is an easy thing to do. But why clutter up a film with chattering?

Cineaste: Given the emphasis you place on characters’ gestures, do you use any special techniques working with your actors to get them to express what you had in mind?

LD: On the set we do not speak to the actor about why his or her character does this or that. No psychological explanations on why a character acts a certain way. Certainly actors have their own opinions; they make their own films in their heads. On the occasions when an actor tries to speak to us about such opinions, we always try to contradict him in order to keep him slightly off-balance.
What we do with the actors is also very physical. The day filming begins we do not feel obliged to do things exactly the way they were rehearsed; we pretend that we are starting over from zero so that we can rediscover things that we did before. The instructions we give the actors are above all physical. We start working without the cameraman – just the actors and my brother and me. We walk them through the blocking, first one then the other, trying several different versions. They say but do not act their lines. We do not tell them what the tone of their lines should be; we just say that we will see once the camera is rolling. At this point there is no cameraman, no sound engineer, no lighting. Then we set up all the camera movements exactly and the rhythm of the shot, which is usually a long take. Doing it this way allows us the ability to modify the actors’ movements or any small details. Then we begin and the actors really say the dialog for the first time. If a line is not delivered as we would like it, we do not say, ‘No, you should say it this way.’ It is rather, ‘Not like that, hold back.’ We ask for less, less, less, more neutral, more blank. We try to comment in a way that is negative and physical so that the actors themselves can bring something to the process.

The Son (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Cineaste: It strikes us that your characters run a lot. They always seem to be hurrying, and your camera is always following them from behind.

JPD: Well, since I can never be a viewer in the same sense that you are, I see things from a different angle; and, personally, I have another impression. I feel rather that in The Son it is more a question of waiting. In Rosetta we are in a dash towards something she wants – a job. Everything she does is out of her will to have, to be, to exist, to run, and the camera tries to stick to her heels. In The Son it is more a question of waiting for a word that is supposed to be spoken but is not forthcoming, and of waiting to see what Olivier will do. Even Olivier does not know. We try to show this, to take seriously the fact that when Magali asks Olivier why he is doing all this, he says that he does not know. We wanted to have the acting and the mise-en-scene reflect this state of imbalance. Maybe he is going to kill the boy; maybe he is going to teach him his trade. Maybe in teaching he will also want to kill him. So, except when we are following Olivier up and down the stairs, my impression is that we are stuck to him waiting to escape this situation.

And seen from behind. Quite so. Perhaps when there are more views of a person’s back than usual, then when you see the face, you really look at it – more than you would if you had been looking at it all the time.

LD: We filmed Olivier from the back for a lot of reasons, really. Not too long ago I saw a photograph by Dorothea Lange that I think suggests one of these reasons. The picture shows a woman of color, perhaps seventy or seventy-five, seated on a bench, probably in a New York park or street, and we are viewing her from behind. I had the feeling – very subjective –  that I was seeing her whole life there on her back, on the nape of her neck. Looking at her from this angle gave me the impression of a story, one of suffering perhaps. There she was looking at the world in front of her and there on her back were the traces of her entire history. There was today’s world and the character outside of it with her own particular history that the world does not notice, but we do perceive it because we are behind her. And I said to myself that Olivier is pretty much like that. There is the entire story with his son – which we do not know when the film begins; but observing him from behind we see something private and peculiar to him. However, it is something that he cannot see because he cannot look at his back.

The Son (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Cineaste: In your films we see many characters who come from the working class and who really strive to work. Would you comment on the sociopolitical positions that have led to your interest in depicting such characters.

JPD: Oh la . . . This may stem from sociopolitical positions, but it also comes from our stance as filmmakers. Making a film is also a pleasure; it is fun. Although it is also a job, no one is forcing us do it. You have to do things that you want to do, and there are certain things that you want to film more than others. You not only have to be interested in filming but you also have to be able to find a certain element of passion and desire in the process.

It is true that our characters belong to the working class or at least to what used to be the working class. You might say that Roger in La Promesse is déclassé, a man who no longer belongs to a class. He does not have a job, although we can guess that he once did have a job. Quite visibly he does not come from the upper middle class. Rosetta, too, has been ‘de-classed.’ The working class is no longer the working class. It is no longer structured as it was at the beginning of the last century. We are truly at the end of an age, of industry, of what we have known for a hundred years. Perhaps in an immediate sense, it is because we have lived a good part of our lives within this time that we choose to film it and to anchor our stories around these de-classed people. If our characters had been from the 1920s or the 1930s we would not have filmed them in the same manner. Nor would we have told the story of a former worker who becomes an exploiter of foreign laborers. Such a character does not belong in the twenties or thirties; he belongs in a period when the social structures are becoming destructured. In such times you see people who are a bit lost, who try to live by exploiting those worse off than they; people who, like Rosetta, are trying to survive.

The Son (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Son is more abstract since Olivier is someone who has a connection with manual labor. Such an attachment does exist, quite strongly, where we come from. Even Roger, who exploits immigrant labor, works and gets his hands dirty – even if it is to bury someone. He pushes wheelbarrows around; he labors. We explained why Olivier is a carpenter. But it might have been possible, and quite interesting, to make him teach French or math to kids who have not succeeded in the regular schools. In the end, the way we depict our characters has something, and at the same time, nothing to do with sociopolitical positions.

LD: But perhaps filming gestures and very specific, material things is what allows the viewer to sense everything that is spiritual, unseen, and not a part of materiality. We tend to think that the closer one gets to the cup, to the hand, to the mouth whose lips are drinking, the more one will be able to feel something invisible – a dimension we want to follow and which would otherwise be less present in the film. How does one capture what happens when a gesture is taught? For example, when Olivier teaches the boy the movements of his trade. Yes, there is certainly the fact that the other person will do the same thing, but something else is happening, too. How can you capture that on film? Perhaps by filming the gestures as precisely as possible you can render apprehensible that which is not seen?

– Joan And Dennis West: ‘Taking The Measure Of Human Relationships: An Interview With The Dardenne Brothers’ (Cineaste, Fall 2003). 

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