Jean-Pierre And Luc Dardenne, Lorna’s Silence
From Auguste and Louis Lumière onwards, filmmaking partnerships with last names like Coen, Duplass, Hughes, Maysles, Polish, Quay, Wachowski, Taviani, Zellner and Zucker – just to name a few – have been proving that siblings and cinema go well together, and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are certainly no exceptions. The Belgian filmmakers, born in Liège in 1951 and 1954 respectively, have been making films as a duo since 1975, when they formed the production company Dérives. After a decade of making documentaries, they shifted to doc-style fiction filmmaking with Falsch (1986), but it was not until La Promesse, about a slum landlord, his son and an illegal immigrant tenant, that they became widely known. The film, starring Dardenne regulars Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier, won prizes worldwide and established the brothers as gifted social realists. Their 1999 follow-up about a struggling teen, Rosetta, consolidated their standing within world cinema when it won the Palme D’Or, as well as Best Actress for its lead Emilie Dequenne. Since then, they have regularly appeared every three years at Cannes with a new film: The Son played there in 2002, winning Best Actor for Gourmet, and in 2005 L’Enfant won them their second Palme D’Or, putting them in an elite group of auteurs who have been awarded Cannes’ main prize twice.
Their 2008 Cannes entry Lorna’s Silence, which is released this week, is a return to their preferred territory, stories of young outsiders, crime and poverty in contemporary Belgium. The movie’s central character is Albanian immigrant Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who is in a fraudulent marriage to junkie Claudy (Jérémie Renier) that has gained her Belgian citizenship. Her ultimate aim is to start a snack bar with her boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj), however the men who paid Claudy to marry her now want her to marry a Russian gangster to grant him citizenship – which means getting Claudy out of the picture. Lorna’s Silence shows the Dardennes at their best, creating realistic situations with true dramatic and emotional intensity. Lorna and Claudy’s relationship provides the dramatic core of the film, and the performances from Dobroshi and Renier are poignant and painfully honest. While with this film the Dardennes have stepped away from their usual documentary-style handheld photography, this does nothing to lessen the power they wield as dramatic storytellers and or their ability to bring the best out of their actors.
Filmmaker sat down with the Dardennes during their recent visit to New York for a career retrospective and spoke to them about how they find their subjects, their long working relationship, and punishing young offenders by showing them La Promesse.
Filmmaker: What was your starting point for this movie?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: It’s a story we were told in the early part of the year 2000. There was a woman who told us the story of her brother, and in fact that’s Claudy’s story. Except in reality, the brother does not marry and does not get killed. Our intention was to make a film with a woman as a main character. We wanted to have a woman immigrant as the central character of the film and see if she would be an accomplice upfront to a plan that would lead to the death of a man, and as the film unfolded we wanted to see if she would continue to be an accomplice. Or not.
Filmmaker: Is there a process of how you find the stories that inform your movies?
Luc Dardenne: We don’t really have a set way or process. Sometimes we go from reality and sometimes we invent everything, but because our stories come from reality we trust reality as much as our imagination. For example, in Lorna’s Silence we know exactly what the police look for when they’re checking up on people who they suspect of being a fake couple, so we set up the whole apartment accordingly because we had that information. We thought about it all. There’s a scene that was cut out of the film where the police comes to check up on all this, and we knew exactly what kinds of things they look for, like the double mattress.
Filmmaker: How much of what you write is based on research and how much on emotional instinct?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: 50-50. [laughs] No, it’s difficult to answer. Even if part of what we do is based on reality and part of it is based on what or who we are, the division is not very clear. Things sort of move back and forth.
Filmmaker: You often use young and relatively inexperienced actors, but always get really incredible performances from them. What do you put these successes down to?
Luc Dardenne: This is general, this is with all actors. We watch them, we film them walking or sitting. Not talking. Gestures are important. She’ll sit on a bench and we’ll film for a long time. And then afterwards when we look at the footage, we were are able to see if the camera likes her or not, if she’s there, if there’s a presence on the images. After that, we do some small scenes. We act out a small scene with him or her, depending on who it is, and generally it’s always the same scene: it revolves around a lie. I know the truth and we tell them, “You have to resist my questions. You don’t necessarily have to talk, but we have to feel in the scene that you don’t want to tell us the truth.” What we find is that if the actor or actress is able to resist by doing very little and sort of prevent us from going in and staying opaque, then we say, “Ah, there’s something there.” And then, of course, we work a lot more after that.
Filmmaker: You used to be documentary filmmakers and there’s a great sense of realism in your films, so how much freedom do you give your actors?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: No freedom. Freedom doesn’t exist for the actors. We rehearse for something like two and a half months with the actors before we start working, and we explore a whole number of different, concrete things. For instance, in the case of Lorna, when she comes into the apartment she has the errands that she just bought and she puts the stuff on the bed near Claudy and then she comes back to where the coats are hanging and then she takes her bag and wallet in her bag… All these gestures, we spent almost a day on rehearsing this and it’s really about the rhythm and the succession of the gestures, and that’s really the key of how we work. In terms of freedom, I’m not really sure what that means. If the question is “Is there improvisation?,” that doesn’t exist. The dialogue may evolve in the rehearsals, but there’s no improvisation. But when the shots are set up and we’re actually starting to shoot, because we work with very long takes, the rhythm of the movement and trajectory from one place to the other within the shot may change a little bit from the rehearsal to the shot and even between takes. It’s almost like the shot will be inhabited differently because of the present time and how things unfold.
Filmmaker: I want to ask you about your working process, because you’ve been making films together for a very long time.
Luc Dardenne: 34 years… [They both laugh] We’ve always worked together. We’ve never worked alone in film, so I’m incapable of comparing what it would mean to work alone. I think when you’re two and when you don’t work in a narcissistic way obviously – you don’t have one or the other saying, “You’re great!” or always agreeing – when you have the two of us on a shoot, we’re really ruthless with each other. If we’re not happy, if we’re not satisfied, it’s like a machine that allows us to go much, much further. On a set, for instance, with the crew or the actors, when one of us isn’t satisfied with the result, we do it again. We do it again and again and again. And it’s a little bit like madness going back and doing it differently and just pushing it further, but the fact that we’re two allows us to go this much further.
Filmmaker: You have a core group of people you work with regularly, like the actors Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier, plus your cinematographer Alain Marcoen and editor Marie-Hélène Dozo. Is it now something like a family unit? Can you work with them as easily as you do with each other?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: I want to make a distinction, and I want to talk first about the technical crew. The people we’ve been working with we started working with on La Promesse, and for the most part it was their first feature. Some of them had done documentaries and shorts before. All the key people on the crew are friends and still are friends. It’s true, there could have been problems, but nobody is there to do just their job. The sound person doesn’t just do sound, the DP doesn’t just do image, they’re all really there for the same reason, which is to make characters come to life. Nobody is there to do their part on their own. As for the actors, it’s true that you find them coming back through several films, but the only time that we knew who we were going to work with was with Olivier Gourmet in The Son. But it’s true that Jérémie comes back, a little but like a ghost.
Luc Dardenne: He comes to beg for his role. [laughs] So this time we killed him – maybe he’ll leave us alone. [laughs] But precisely because we killed him he’s going to come back!
Filmmaker: You’re in town now for a retrospective at Lincoln Center. Looking back on your work, what progressions and shifts do you see from La Promesse to the present moment? How do you view the arc of those films? And where do you see yourselves going as filmmakers?
Luc Dardenne: I don’t have much to say to this. What we’ve done, what we do, where we’re going to – I don’t really have an answer. There’s some mistakes. We watched a film recently and there were some things we thought were not so great, but I can’t really tell you which way we’re going. The only thing I know that I can say is that I know when we felt that we were free, that we weren’t trying to copy something we’d done before or obey certain rules. We felt free, we felt like we had the daring to invent and find new things and that’s the sense I’ve had since La Promesse: we’ve been free. Every time. I don’t think there’s anything that could be sadder than to come to a set and work like a contractor, building the same wall with the same concrete every time.
Filmmaker: So do you look at those “old walls,” do you watch your previous films?
Luc Dardenne: No, generally we don’t watch our films. We just did, but we haven’t done it before. We just did it with La Promesse because we went to show it in a juvenile delinquents’ facility – the worst punishment you can give them is to watch this film. We watched it with them before having the discussion.
Filmmaker: Some people have said that there’s a religious bent to your recent films, that they deal with redemption, are increasingly spiritual, etc. I don’t personally see this, but I wanted to ask you if such a reading is correct.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Oh, that’s a question for you…
Luc Dardenne: No, it’s for you!
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Why do you say that? No, it doesn’t interest me. It’s interesting – in fact, it’s a little bizarre – because we’re telling stories of people who are eventually at some point find themselves guilty, and it’s like you can’t tell a story in our society where you imagine that someone is guilty without immediately thinking about God. I do ask why this question comes back over and over again. And then you start talking about redemption. What we’re telling is stories of people who, little by little – even almost without realizing it – start feeling guilty. And, as a result, become more human. And I think it tells a lot more about the people who ask this question than about us.
Luc Dardenne: Amen!
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Luc Dardenne: My advice is, if one cannot find outside financing, make a film with one’s available means, e.g. a small digital camera and friends. Another piece of advice is never to complain about being unappreciated or misunderstood.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: It is difficult to give advice. To me the most important thing is to discover one’s own working method, and luckily, and one can only discover it through the work. However, here are two small pieces of advice: first, come up with a working plan which has to do with the nature of the film itself and not from the availability of the technicians or actors who very often have other things scheduled. The second small piece of advice is simply to be present in the moment in order to let life reveal itself.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Luc Dardenne: The 10 Commandments (1956). I saw it in 1959 or 1960, I was 5 years old. My memory of it is that it scared me.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: I must have been about 8 years old. A friend of my parents, an amateur filmmaker, had gone to the US for his work on construction sites of factories. A few days after his return, he organized a screening in his home of images of the sites and landscapes he had filmed, along with slapstick short films for the kids. One of those shorts is my first movie memory. It’s the story of a guy who crashes a posh party, refuses to leave when asked to and gets chased around. He hides in a closet behinds the coats.. Of course, a moment later, he gets discovered and the chase goes on… Unlike this protagonist, I was very afraid to get locked in in a closet, afraid of the dark and of suffocating… It is also my first memory of a nightmare. After such fear, my night was very agitated.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which film was it?
Luc Dardenne: It was about a year ago. I saw Splendor in the Grass again (with my students). It was the final scene, Kazan’s most beautiful one, and one of the most beautiful scenes in the history of cinema, which made me cry.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: It was a while ago. It was at the Churchill in Liege, a theater run by my friends, at a screening of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. It’s impossible to explain why one cries at the movies. The emotion is too strong, that’s it… And it feels good.