- Committed Cinema: The Films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Essays and Interviews
The Dardenne brothers are amongst the most important contemporary European filmmakers. The little known early part of their filmmaking career was devoted to documenting collective leftist resistances in their native Belgium, but they are now known worldwide for the succession of intense, compelling fictions which began with La Promesse (1996) and which explore the violence of the current socio-economic order with relentless intensity but without ever giving in to despair. This volume is the first book-length study in English to deal with their works. Pulling together previously published material from British and American sources, it combines a series of longer essays and shorter reviews by notable critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, Robin Wood, and Gerald Peary with a generous number of interviews with the brothers themselves. The latter form the most consistently impressive part of the book, for the brothers are always insightful and incisive as they discuss their influences, their working practices, and their own understanding of their films. The essays and reviews are less strong in their impact, not because they are weak individually — many are very perceptive — but because they often tend to cover similar ground, as when, for example, they repeatedly summarize the brothers' early career. Due to their greater length, the essays take analyses further and are generally more satisfying than the reviews. Doug Cummings's piece, 'The Brothers Dardenne: Responding to the Face of the Other', gives a particularly insightful account of the brothers' Levinas-influenced, face-to-face aesthetic and its capacity to combine obsessive proximity to the characters with a respect for their alterity. David Walsh's essay is less persuasive, but nonetheless poses the essential question of the political value of the brothers' films. Given the book's title, this is a question that hangs over the work as a whole, one that the brothers themselves tend to dismiss or answer obliquely. Walsh is very critical but not always fair: he seems to want the films to develop the kind of explicit critique of the contemporary order that would strip them of much of their claustrophobic intensity. He also reads them in terms of psychological and narrative realism, failing to see that, rather than having conventional plots, they dramatize ethical dilemmas as they play out across characters who cannot therefore be understood in psychological terms. Yet his key criticism, that the films propose ethico-moral responses to socio-economic problems, is surely worth exploration. In the most recent review, Jim Wolfreys comments: 'Few directors are capable today of depicting the human cost of capitalism's brutality with the simple force and eloquence of the Dardenne brothers' (p. 122). His [End Page 516] comments balance Walsh's critique without entirely invalidating it. Overall, the book is a very useful source. Clearly not a substitute for the fully developed analysis that a book-length study would allow, it is full of insights and usefully documents critical responses to the brothers' works, especially in the United States, where their films are seen to provide welcome relief from standard Hollywood fare.