Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne Open Up About Their Career Before Receiving the Lumiere Award

With characteristic modesty and humor, the Dardenne brothers opened up about their career at a masterclass in Lyon for the Lumière Festival, where they are receiving the Lumière Award for lifetime achievement.

But before they answered the questions put to them by festival director Thierry Frémaux, the Belgian brothers graciously gave way to a couple of representatives of a local collective, who spoke in the name the thousands of people whom the pandemic has pushed into poverty.

While emotion left Jean-Pierre Dardenne speechless, his brother Luc said, “Few things have changed in the 20 years since we made “Rosetta” [their first Palme d’Or in 1999]. The coronavirus is not responsible for everything, and there are still so many inequalities in the world. They are right to fight.”

“Being excluded from the world of work, of production, of consumption, of the human community, creates a feeling of humiliation, of worthlessness, of not existing. That’s what ‘Rosetta’ was about and it’s still true today – that solitude, it’s a question of human dignity.”

“There’s a responsibility that comes with being a filmmaker,” Luc Dardenne added. “Of course we like it when people like our film, but it’s even better they can become Rosetta, share her distress, become her. If a film can make someone who is locked up inside their own pre-conceived notions become someone else, and if this feeling stays with them, that’s what we want to achieve.”

How do they achieve this?

“In many of our films, there’s this notion of belonging. Rosetta has no place in society, she doesn’t know where she belongs. So when directing, we try and find a place for her. We put the camera in ‘the wrong place’” Luc Dardenne explained. “So that the character isn’t obvious to the viewer. If you feel you’re losing the character, you’re more interested.”

The brothers said that a lot of the work is done well before the camera starts rolling, during the weeks of rehearsal that precede the shoot. Costumes and accessories play a huge part, and it was  during rehearsals with Olivier Gourmet for “The  Promise” (1996) that the idea of their trademark close-up tracking shot of the back of the character’s head emerged.

“We don’t want to write a story for someone who doesn’t know what tomorrow is made of. So with Rosetta, the camera is always behind her. If we think she’s going to turn left but she turns right, the camera has to be nimble and follow, a bit like a camera in a war-zone,” said Luc Dardenne. “It’s more of a documentary style in the sense that we are filming someone whom we don’t have control over. Even when it comes to the dialogues, we shoot as if we’re not familiar with them.”

Looking back at the start of their career and the transition from documentary filmmaking, the brothers welcome what they call the “salutary flop” of “Je pense à vous” (1995).

“We were self-conscious like anyone who is self-taught. We felt like a pair of elephants entering the china shop of cinema. But it’s good to be afraid, it gives you the energy that comes from hard work. It was a healthy failure,” said Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

Coming from the world of documentaries is what helped them craft their distinct, uncluttered style.

“Each person we filmed was unique, had their own story. In our films, we never want our character to just be the advocate of a cause. Each character is very distinct,” said Jean-Pierre Dardenne. “In all of our films, the question we ask ourselves is: How are we going to save our characters? Twenty years ago, it was Rosetta, and now it’s Ahmed (“Young Ahmed”, 2019).

“We thought, ‘My God, it’s terrible, we never thought that in our Western society a 15-year old boy could be turned into a religious fanatic, “ said Jean-Pierre Dardenne. “Our goal wasn’t to find out how he became radicalized, but whether we would be able to save him. The answer was to put him before the fear of death. Like every child, he called for his mother.”

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are being awarded the Lumière Award in Lyon at the 12th Lumière Festival, following in the footsteps of the likes of Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda and Francis Ford Coppola.

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