Subtle Cinema and the Dardennes Brothers

by Charlie Graham-Dixon

I’ve never liked being told what to do, or how to think. Usually, my default response is to want to think or do the opposite, while quietly hating the person who ordered me around. You could argue that this shows I have issues with figures of authority, but I maintain that it feels better to receive information or ideas, from a teacher, director, artist, or indeed any person, who tells their stories with skill and passion and without condescension or cynical manipulation.

As much as any artistic medium, film proves that any story can be compelling if it is told well. At 13, I watched Barry Lyndon (1975) for the first time and was blown away. Until then, with my knowledge of cinema still basic at best and only a fledgling recognition that film could be art, I would have sworn that only gangster, horror or sci-fi films were worth watching. The idea that a period drama, devoid of graphic violence and with a 3-hour running time, could be anything other than a crashing bore would have struck me as ridiculous. However, Kubrick was a genius and a masterful storyteller and, more to the point, he wasn’t forcing anything down my throat. He gave me a tapestry of characters and told their stories in an honest and non-judgemental way. I made up my own mind about these people, none of whom felt like “good” or “bad” guys, just real people with flaws. The film also happens to be staggeringly beautiful, which helps. For me, watching Barry Lyndon set in motion the dawning realisation that subtle, intelligent film-making could mean far more than emotionally manipulative, loud and clunky cinema.

Along with their visual beauty, the great films often rise above their lesser counterparts due to their lack of explicit judgement. This provides scope for neutrality and refuses to force audiences into holding concrete opinions on what they see. It allows us to decide for ourselves. At the other end of this scale are the “message” movies: the schlocky, sentimental tear jerkers which batter you over the head with agendas, use overly dramatic music and signpost their audiences towards reacting in a certain way to every scene, while filling their running time with unrealistically black-and-white characters. Those films that revel in shades of grey, on the other hand, become more meaningful as they mirror the subtleties and complexities of life.

Films focusing on social problems, such as racism in Crash (2004) and American History X (1998), or pretty much anything directed by Oliver Stone, are often lauded for their depth and fearlessness in tackling controversial and difficult issues. Everything is refracted through the lens of personal opinion, of course, but the aforementioned films and director had big-budget opportunities to discuss genuinely important issues and yet failed by lapsing into sensationalism, sentimentality and hyperbole. From trying to satirize the mass media via clumsy metaphors in Natural Born Killers (1994) to creating that unbearably literal and pedestrian depiction of 9/11 in World Trade Center (2006), Oliver Stone just does not do subtle. One could argue that films of this nature are even irresponsible. That whether we agree with Oliver Stone’s cautionary views on the media, financial systems or government corruption is irrelevant when we need level-headed responsible directors who open up proper debates rather than simply stirring the pot of anger and controversy.

The work of Belgian sibling duo, the Dardennes, exemplifies restrained, neutral and non-judgemental filmmaking. Their work confronts similar heavy issues to Stone’s, but they operate on a smaller scale, examining the tough, grinding existence of working-class people within modern Belgium. This is not to say that the Dardennes’ work is less socially or politically significant than Hollywood’s attempts at addressing problems. In fact, a closer look at their body of work shows that they actually tackle issues within society as a whole – just without relying on expensive set pieces, exotic locations or persuasive music to open up emotive debates.

The Dardennes employ a stripped-down cinematic style, often using hand-held cameras and avoiding a musical score. Their characters and aesthetic are representative of the everyday. Their work is filled with tales of hard-up working-class people, but does not resort to sentimentality in order for us to sympathise with their plights. Heavy-handed cinema would juxtapose such protagonists with overtly selfish individuals to ensure our emotional response was heightened to its maximum.

A definitive example of the Dardennes’ early work is The Son (2002) which presents us with a tortured soul called Olivier – a Seraing carpenter who teaches apprentices at a trade school and knowingly takes on a pupil, Francis, who was responsible for the death of his son five years earlier. In the hands of other directors, The Son could very easily have become a straightforward morality tale resulting in a bloody finale. Yet, with characteristic poise and dignity, the Dardennes allow the story to develop. Olivier becomes obsessed with the boy. In trying to understand the person who brought him such suffering and pain, he follows Francis’ every move, breaking into his flat and rifling through his possessions as he tries to come to terms with his devastating loss.

In agonising over the right course of action, Olivier almost personifies the Dardennes’ entire oeuvre. He does not know what choice to make – should he hate the boy? Should he harm the boy? Should he feel compassion or forgiveness? And, as these thoughts swirl around Olivier’s head, they simultaneously fill the viewer’s. The Son declines to provide a quick fix of violent decisive action; real life and real people are far more complex.

In other hands, Francis may have been turned into a monster in order to accentuate our feelings of antipathy towards his actions and consequently feel more sympathy towards Olivier. But the Dardennes chose a different road, portraying Francis exactly as he is – a kid, like all the others boys in the carpentry school. His past contains a dark secret, but who isn’t to say that the other pupils don’t have skeletons in their closets? The Dardennes’ refusal to place these characters on a pedestal, either to receive praise or vitriol, means that we make up our own minds about them.

Along with their themes and characterisation, the Dardennes’ use of technique is key to their restrained and realistic style. Hand-held camerawork is a staple of the brother’s work and The Son is no exception. From the film’s outset, Olivier is captured using over the shoulder close-up hand-held shots as he works, eats and lives his seemingly mundane life, making it hard to gain a sense of perspective as to who he is, or even where he is. Were it not for the prior knowledge that the film was made by Belgian directors and the clearly audible French dialogue, it would be challenging to gain a sense of place due to this disorientating style. The oppressive camerawork and absence of music result in a feeling of neutrality as the events taking place are shown in such a frank documentary style.

Despite all this, The Son is exceptionally compelling. The slow build-up focused on the tedium of Olivier’s existence, followed by the arrival of Francis at the carpentry school, leads to the nagging sense that something must surely give. Both characters appear burdened and tormented, despite the regular lives they are living. It seems that these central characters will be forced to pay a price for the events that have taken place years before. Importantly, the Dardennes never once tell us who we should be rooting for and why. And we do not wish for a confrontation between the two characters, nor do we hope for a favourable outcome for one at the expense of the other. We just hope for some kind of closure and inner peace for Olivier and Francis.

The Dardennes’ most recent work, Two Days, One Night (2014), continues the honest and impartial approach the brother’s have adopted throughout their careers, where the realities of human interactions provide the drama. It is a film filled with conversations as Marion Cotillard’s Sandra moves from place to place, pleading with her colleagues for her job to be saved after she is laid off from working in a solar panel factory. As is typical of the Dardennes’ work, the film places us both in Sandra’s position and those of her colleagues, challenging us and asking what we would do were we to find ourselves in such a bind. There is no right or wrong answer here. The Dardennes are honest with us – this is a nearly impossible situation. Those colleagues of Sandra’s that choose to refuse the bonus, which allows her to keep her job but leaves them financially worse off, are not necessarily right or good: they are just making the decision that makes most sense for them. Those colleagues of Sandra’s that do decide they want to keep their bonuses are also not evil megalomaniacs, as they may have been presented in a film like Wall Street, laughing maniacally as they walk into the BMW showroom to spend their newly gained loot. These are real people who have made a financial decision, not rooted in malice or malevolent greed, but one that will best help them to live their lives in relative comfort.

When discussing Two Days, One Night, The Dardennes described their work as being a conversation between themselves and audiences. This description goes a long way towards shaping our understanding of the brothers’ work and also appreciating the extent to which their films refuse to impose ideas on us. Thinking of film as a conversation is a good way of looking at neutral and subtle films in general. A film that is not a conversation is a lecture and, while it is nice to learn from cinema, it is also pleasurable to gain personal perspective and ideas from a story that is told on screen. And if more film-makers avoided forcing agendas and instead treated their audiences with intelligence and respect, their films would become far more valuable for society, both as art and entertainment.


Photograph by The Son, 2002

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