The Dardenne Brothers are among the most reliable and consistent filmmakers working today. It was something of a surprise that their appearance at Cannes this year was not met with universal acclaim. Indeed they decided that they needed to recut The Unknown Girl before its international release and seven minutes were excised to leave a 106 minute feature. With this in mind and fearing, if not the worst, then the possibility of disappointment, I was relieved to find that it was business as usual.
The narrative premise is simple. A young and highly-regarded doctor fails to answer the surgery door long after normal working hours. She reasons that if it is really urgent the caller will press the bell again. But nothing happens until later when the police inform the doctor that CCTV footage shows a young woman at the surgery door and that it is the same young woman who has been found dead on the bank of the River Meuse a short distance away. The doctor is shaken and struck by a profound sense of guilt as well as compassion for an unnamed woman whose identity is a mystery. Doctor Jenny Gavin, played by rising French star Adèle Haenel, becomes the first Dardenne brothers’ protagonist to be drawn from the professional classes. She’s also the third mainstream French actress in a row to feature in the Dardennes’ social realist films. As usual, the Dardennes had been mulling over the central idea for the story for a few years before they decided to make it after meeting Adèle Haenel. The circumstances of the story are also quite familiar. It could almost be a spin-off from the opening scenes of The Kid With a Bike when the boy in question runs into a doctor’s surgery. The ‘kid’ (Thomas Doret) turns up again in the new film, five years on in a small role and there are plenty of other familiar faces from the Dardennes’ films including Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Christelle Cornil and Fabrizio Rongione. But the differences are noticeable.
The social class difference is important. In the other films, the protagonist is either a young person struggling with a social/personal problem or an older woman subject to some form of control. Here, Jenny is a successful doctor, able to make her own decisions and to access the money she needs to fund her ‘investigation’ – since that is what she undertakes, a mission to find out who the dead girl was and even to pay for a decent burial (while hoping that the deceased’s family will eventually appear to claim her). I realised later that the narrative has some similarities with the recent ‘Hollywoodised’ versions of popular novels like The Girl on the Train – in which a middle-class woman tries to find out what happened when she appears to be involved in a murder. I won’t spoil what happens to Jenny but she starts her investigation with no accusations against her – the police accept that not answering the door after closing time at the surgery is not a crime. She is therefore motivated by her own sense of responsibility and morality. Jenny’s behaviour is also linked to another ‘failing’ in that she refused to answer the door as part of an attempt to exert her authority over an intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). She was trying to teach him that doctors need to be alert and that he must avoid ‘overworking’ so his head remains clear to deal with patients in surgery time. But perhaps she gets this wrong too?
Dr Jenny is also to some extent an ‘unknown girl/woman’. We know nothing about her background. She appears to be single and without any form of ‘outside’ commitments. (It’s still unusual to have a female protagonist who isn’t either involved with a man or constrained by family responsibilities.) She takes her work seriously and the death of the woman seems to galvanise her into making a decision to work alone as a GP in a working-class practice. She works long hours and spends the rest of her time on the investigation – which will involve people from the neighbourhood. This all makes her sound rather dull and indeed some reviewers have criticised the film because they think that she is a dull and humourless figure and that the story is not ‘exciting’ enough. I don’t really agree with this. She isn’t humourless and she has a good relationship with her patients. It’s true that at first there aren’t the entertaining sequences – confrontations between characters – that we find in earlier Dardennes films. But she finds things out and the confrontations come eventually. Some reviewers have seen the development of a film noir narrative in the second half. Other reviews suggest that she is a ‘do-gooder’ and somehow morally ‘superior’ – which are not attractive features. I think her moral dilemmas are ‘real’ and that the reactions she evokes are understandable and have to be handled. The social issues are still there – migrant workers, male attitudes to prostitution and working-class confrontations with a young female medical practitioner. I also found it interesting to see something about social medicine in Belgium, which has a different system to the UK. Home visits are rare in the UK now but thankfully nobody has to pay for treatment. I’ve seen criticism that the narrative becomes contrived, but this can also be seen (as in other Dardennes films) as portraying the inter-connectedness of communities and the film manages to embed the central story in a recognisable world.
Not a crowd-pleaser film perhaps, but a great central performance offering plenty to think about.
The latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has got substantial coverage in the UK press and I even heard a cogent analysis of the film on Radio 4’s ‘Thought For the Day’ religious slot last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at that. The film deals with a recognisable personal and social quandary and a real moral question. At a time of austerity when seemingly everything is being ‘cut’, how would you feel if you were a worker offered the choice between receiving a bonus or instead helping a colleague keep her job? And from her point of view how would you feel about spending your weekend trying to persuade your workmates to forego their €1,000 bonus so that you can keep your job? Those are the questions that drive the film narrative. The Dardennes complicate matters further by making their central character Sandra someone trying to return to work after suffering depression. While she has been off work the boss has concluded that his workforce can cope with one less member so he has devised this diabolical choice for his non-unionised workforce. Some commentators (and audiences) have seen the additions of these details as making the narrative more contrived than it needs to be (Sandra also has an almost saintly husband who is super-supportive). The result might be that the film is less about the ‘social issue’ of a fair distribution of income and employment opportunities and more about Sandra’s ‘personal’ struggle to maintain her dignity and sense of self-belief.
A few weeks ago I introduced the film on its first weekend on release and therefore spent some time thinking about how the Dardenne brothers present themselves as filmmakers and how they are generally understood by critics, reviewers and audiences. My notes for that ‘Illustrated Talk’ are downloadable here:
My conclusion was that most commentators are too keen to try and pigeon-hole the brothers as fitting a specific category in terms of approach, styles, themes etc. Certainly all of their films since the mid-1990s have been set in their home town of Seraing in the Meuse Valley of Wallonia, the francophone region of South-Eastern Belgium, and each film focuses on one or two characters facing some kind of problem connected to a current social issue. However, the approach and the style does change and in the DVD ‘extras’ of the previous film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, 2010), the two brothers (who share writing, production and direction) demonstrate how they set up certain scenes. They discuss these in some detail and explain the differences between the films in terms of how the camera is used etc. So, for instance, Sandra in Two Days, One Night is on a quest which sends her around Seraing over a weekend and we follow her – much as we follow the central character in Rosetta (1999). But the teenage Rosetta is a very different type of character to Sandra and the Dardennes’ camera follows her as if she is a soldier in a war combat film. Rosetta is a strong young woman determined to do anything to get, and keep, a job. She needs to be strong because her single parent mother is an alcoholic who threatens to drink away Rosetta’s earnings. ‘Following’ the embattled Rosetta with the camera requires a different approach to that in The Kid With a Bike in which Cyrille, in a summery Seraing, is like a character in a fairy-tale searching for his ‘lost’ father and oscillating between the ‘bad’ fairy (the local gangleader) and the ‘good fairy’ Samantha who agrees to be his foster-mother. Sandra is different again in a very physical performance by Marion Cotilard as a woman weakened by depression and medication who must find the energy and self-belief to ask difficult questions of her work-mates.
The publicity for the release of Two Days, One Night focused on the presence of Marion Cotillard as the ‘first A List star’ that the Dardennes had cast in their films. Ms Cotillard is certainly a major star of French cinema as well as appearing in major international Hollywood productions. But Cécile de France was also a major star when she accepted the role as Samantha in Le gamin au vélo. The key point is that whereas de France, a Walloon from Namur, is ‘culturally appropriate’, Cotillard was born in Paris and grew up in Orléans. She can play the role of a woman in Seraing and give it authenticity because of her skill – but this is nevertheless a change in the Dardennes’ approach. The ‘star stature’ is also important. In the clips referenced above the Dardennes discuss how they choreographed scenes and used the camera taking into account Cécile de France’s experience when working with a young non-professional on Le gamin au vélo. De France is a leading figure in the film, but not actually the central character. Marion Cotillard is the main focus of Two Days, One Night. She gives a wonderful performance but the question remains as to what extent her star persona – which includes her willingness to represent the tired and ‘worn’ working woman – is read by audiences as an element in the presentation of the narrative. Does it change the sense of authenticity? After two screenings I’m still not sure. As an exercise, it might be worth comparing Cotillard’s performance with that of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (US 2000). The two films are very different but the issue about a star creating a character within a social realist aesthetic is worth pursuing.
The other aspect that Two Days, One Night shares with Le gamin au vélo is the emotional use of music. In the previous film a couple of very short bursts of non-diegetic classical music seem to mark moments in the emotional narrative – whereas the filmmakers have generally avoided music in their earlier films. In Two Days, One Night there are two songs heard on the car radio (i.e. diegetic). The first is Petula Clark’s 1964 French version of the Jackie DeShannon song ‘Needles and Pins’ (1963). The French title is ‘La Nuit n’en Finit Plus’ or ‘the night is never-ending’ and it allows a dialogue exchange about Sandra’s state of mind. Later, in a moment of exultation, Sandra, her husband and a workmate sing along to Van Morrison’s (lead singer of Them) anthemic ‘Gloria’ (1966). In one sense this is a strange choice of songs. Though they certainly work in context you do wonder if the Dardennes are drawing on their own teenage years rather than what might be relevant for Sandra’s generation. The point is that like the casting of Marion Cotillard the use of songs like this ‘fits’ this particular production. The Dardennes make each film very carefully. It might take years for the ideas to develop and the films have come out at regular three-year intervals. They aren’t wedded to one way of making films and that’s what makes each one of their films something to look forward to.
If you haven’t seen the film – and you really should – here’s a trailer (with the Pet Clark song):
I think I need to watch this film again. The latest production by the Dardenne brothers rather took me by surprise. Much has been made about the decision to shoot in the summer and to offer a story that seems much more optimistic than their earlier work. Even though I knew this was the case, I still found myself slightly bemused. The other ‘difference’ in this production is the presence of a major star in Cécile de France. She is terrific in the role of a hairdresser living above her shop. Since she grew up in Namur, not much further along the Meuse Valley from the Dardennes’ usual location of Seraing, she must have felt quite at home. Jérémie Renier, who has a small part as the mostly absent father in this film and has appeared in other Dardenne Brothers’ films, is also arguably a star name, but not perhaps with the glamour of Ms de France. I guess the UK equivalent of this would be Samantha Morton turning up in a Ken Loach film.
Like all the Dardennes’ films, The Kid With a Bike has a simple idea drawn from contemporary culture in Wallonia. Cyril, a pre-teen boy has been taken into care because his father has abandoned him. The boy has lost his bicycle which he believes has been stolen. In one of his many attempts to find the bike (and evade his carers) he literally runs into Samantha the hairdresser. She takes to him and finds his bike which she buys back from someone on the local estate. Eventually, she offers to look after Cyril and he agrees – but he still seeks his father. Although the woman and boy are good together, he has been messed up by his experiences and he almost inevitably becomes involved with a local drugs dealer/gang leader.
As in the other Dardenne brothers’ films I’ve seen, the narrative simply ends without a clear ‘resolution’. However, the overall tone is brighter than in the previous films – though it has its dark moments as well. The Dardennes have spoken about the genesis of the film as coming from a desire to use ideas from fairy stories in an everyday setting. Cécile de France would of course make an ideal fantasy godmother, but here she is ‘ordinary’ (but still breathtaking). The final element in the mix in terms of changes is the use of music. Instead of a conventional score, music – a few bars of Beethoven, I think – punctuates the narrative at key moments. The austerity of the Dardennes’ usual style eschews music and for me this new addition didn’t work. Reading about it afterwards, I can see what they were trying to do and perhaps it will work when I watch the film again. (I’ve seen its usage quoted as a nod to Robert Bresson.)
I want to say at this point that I was totally gripped by the film and swept along by it. I was shocked by the abrupt end of the film and I left the screening feeling that I’d seen another example of superlative filmmaking – but not sure what to say about it. I’ve read a wide range of reviews and some interviews with the brothers, but in a sense the brilliance of these films is never really analysed. Perhaps this slight change of direction will provide an opening?
Is this naturalism or social realism? Is it ciné verité? These are all referenced in reviews. Many reviews also seize on the bicycle and make the obvious link to Bicycle Thieves. A bicycle is actually a very good ‘narrative device’ in this kind of film. It gives a character mobility and it keeps them close to the realities of life in a particular community. It also places characters in situations which make them vulnerable – they can easily be pushed off a bike and it can easily be damaged or indeed stolen. Throughout this film we do get a sense of Cyril’s energy and restlessness and we are constantly fearful about his safety – and that of the bike. In one sense this is social realism. By making films set in their own backyard of the post-industrial belt in the Meuse valley, the Dardennes do ground themselves and their characters in a specific social situation. However, they don’t (at least in the films I’ve seen) attempt to represent the culture of their region in terms of its politics and economics. The comparison with Ken Loach earlier was deliberate. The Dardennes are, I presume, admirers of Loach – their company Les Films du Fleuve is a co-producer of both The Angel’s Share and Looking For Eric, films which are similarly rooted in specific communities. But whereas Loach and writer Paul Laverty create forms of social melodrama which always appeal to issues of class politics and forms of social justice, the Dardenne brothers films seem more concerned with distilled stories of individual moral dilemmas/struggles and personal relationships. (The Dardennes seem not to offer any social context or ‘back story’ for their characters.) Both Loach and the Dardennes use non-actors alongside professionals cast because they ‘fit’ the social realism of the specific region. The other difference comes in camerawork – Loach’s ‘observational documentary’ style against the Dardennes’ more invisibly choreographed style ((which I certainly need to look at more closely) – and use of humour and popular culture. Loach often tends towards the earthy. I clearly need to find the earlier Dardennes’ films that I haven’t seen before I can complete this comparison.
One last point. The summer shooting does create something magical for me, especially in the nighttime scenes. The limited locations include streets with summertime bushes by the roadside and hidden areas in the woods. There is a strong sense of ‘adventures of a summer night’ and the slightly disturbing feel of summer sun in an urban/suburban setting. One reviewer refers to the ‘poetic realism’ of the Dardennes in this film – and he may be right. It certainly feels different from the austerity of The Silence of Lorna or L’enfant.
I’ve just come back from the Meuse valley in Belgium, so I’ll try and write some more about cinema in Wallonia. In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Le gamin au vélo from Cannes 2011 (where it won the Grand Prix):
The Walloon filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne seem to be on a run of films focusing on young women in difficult social positions. They present social realist dramas set largely in the industrial zone around Liège (although industry rarely figures in the stories) with narratives seemingly taken on and worked over from the Ken Loach storybook. The films don’t have the Loachian humour and occasional bursts of melodrama, but instead offer a more intense narrative focus on an individual expressed through an austere and disciplined aesthetic.
The Silence of Lorna won the script prize at Cannes this year. I’m not sure I can see why except that the script is certainly provocative with two ‘shocking’ effronts to narrative convention and the possibility of engagement with a wide range of issues. However, the film is memorable because of its direction and central performance by relative newcomer Arta Dobroshi. She plays Lorna, a young Albanian woman who has become involved in a complex network of scams. At the beginning of the film, she has just received her Belgian ID – acquired through marriage to a junkie, Claudy. Of course, the Dardennes’ storytelling method requires the viewer to work this out over quite a lengthy sequence. But this is just the beginning of events that see Lorna passed from one man to another. The women she meets are invariably officials of the health service. Lorna is intelligent and resourceful, but can she survive working on scams in which she should not become emotionally involved?
I’m not sure if the film’s title is ironic. Lorna isn’t really ‘silent’ – indeed most of the time she speaks out. But she also has to be secretive and her speech is often directed within the small group of scammers who use her. Dobroshi is always interesting to watch and there are sequences in which you are forced to think about migration as an activity with criminal exploitation possibilities. Unfortunately, I don’t think this goes far enough for me – although I suspect that when I reflect upon the last few scenes, I may revise this view.
The Silence of Lorna is a North-West European social realist film and not a ‘crowd-pleaser’. On the way out of the cinema, somebody wondered out loud “Why would anyone go to Belgium from Albania?”. I really don’t see why Belgium is considered dull. I enjoyed the drab streets of the city as a place I recognised that in one sense seemed calm and civilised. I won’t spoil the ending but will point out that it suggests that the city and the woods outside the urban areas have some kind of symbolic value. We might argue that this industrial region that once made ‘things’ now frantically plies a trade in ‘identities’. I could relate this to those British social comedies like The Full Monty in which men who once worked in manufacturing are forced into forms of ‘performance’ instead. I’m not sure how I got from social realism to postmodernity – but perhaps that’s what films like this do?