DVD Review: The Dardennes Collection

I composed a huge ‘List of Shame’ late last year to note down all of the classic and well respected film titles I hadn’t seen yet and the directors I’d heard wonderful things about, but not explored their work. One of these (or should I say two) directors were the Dardenne brothers. Their presence in Cannes is unmistakable, but I think because their work only usually registers in the artiest of European film festivals I kind of ignored them, fearing dreary pretentious naval gazing, but I caught The Kid With the Bike at a local film society screening and immediately fell in love with the pair of directors. Then, only a week or so later, as though they were tracking my tastes and opinions, Artificial Eye sent over their latest box-set for me to review, The Dardennes Collection. This brings together their last six feature films, ever since they first got truly recognised on the world circuit with La Promesse.

Below are my brief thoughts on the films included in this wonderful collection and a summation at the end.

La Promesse

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1996


Their first film to get widely recognised outside of their homeland of Belgium, La Promesse established their trademark style and two of their favourite ‘go-to’ actors (Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet). The film follows Igor (Renier) and his father Roger (Gourmet) who smuggle in, house and exploit the work of illegal immigrants in Belgium. When one of their workers dies in a tragic accident, Roger tries to hide the fact from the authorities and the man’s wife Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), but Igor’s conscience gets the better of him after giving a promise to the dying man that he would look after his wife and son.

Like the rest of the films to come, La Promesse is a masterpiece of ‘no frills’ filmmaking. With no music, effects or gimmicks, the Dardennes rely on strong characters and an expertly constructed script to tell their story. It’s a social drama that is unvarnished and seems bleak at times, but has such warmth and humanity that you’re always kept on board. The brothers have a knack of creating punchy, intensely gripping human dramas that fly by despite their relatively action-free, character-focussed nature. The ending ties up quite neatly which may irk fans of more realistically open ended denouements, but it makes for a mightily satisfying film.

Rosetta

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 1999


The first of their unending run of Cannes Palm d’Or entries and their first of two wins of the festival’s main prize (a feat only a handful of filmmakers have achieved), Rosetta is probably the most brutally raw film of the set (although none of the films are particularly light). It (quite literally) follows Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) in her desperate quest to find and secure a job so that she can earn an honest pay and stay out of the ‘rut’ as she puts it, not becoming like her mother, an alcoholic that gives sexual favours to their landlord in exchange for drink. She finds a friend in the shape of Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), who works at a pancake stand, but even friendship can’t get in the way of her goal as Riquet soon finds out.

The Dardennes’ approach here (and to a slightly lesser extent in their other films) reminds me of Aronofsky’s recent style employed in The Wrestler and Black Swan where the camera never leaves the side of the protagonist, making for an intense and raw character study. The Belgians got there first though and it works a treat. Aided by a powerfully fearless performance by Dequenne, this is gut-wrenching filmmaking, as we see how much of a chore everything is in Rosetta’s life. Nothing is overplayed though and the film is as natural as ever. As before, this is incredibly engrossing to watch too, right up to the abrupt ending which hints at redemption and positivity, but is fairly open-ended.

The Son

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Isabella Soupart
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 2002


Employing a similar approach to Rosetta in tracking one character very closely – literally and figuratively, The Son is about Olivier (Gourmet again) a joinery instructor who initially denies a boy, Francis (Morgan Marinne), entry to his course. Olivier then begins to spy on and follow the boy and we eventually discover a link between the two that is troubling the lonely, ageing man.

This is the strongest evidence of another skill the Dardennes have, in creating tension. By holding their cards close to their chest for much of the film, never spelling anything out too clearly, the film is constantly intriguing and highly suspenseful, even though very little really ‘happens’ in the film. Most of the time is spent watching Olivier keeping an eye on Francis, then getting closer and closer to the boy, but the seemingly innocuous scenes that make up the film are infused with an incredible tension and meaning due to the circumstances and character histories that trickle through. Like La Promesse it has a fairly ‘clean’ redemptive ending, but like all of these titles, it doesn’t overplay it and refuses to add additional ‘fluff’, simply cutting the camera off when their point is made. It isn’t as moving or satisfyingly constructed as some of the other films in the set, but it’s probably the most engrossing.

The Child

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Jérémie Renier, Déborah François, Jérémie Segard
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 2005

(only when compared with the other titles in the set)


The Dardennes won their second Palm d’Or with The Child, which brings back La Promesse’s Jérémie Renier as Bruno, a petty criminal that acts like a child. His girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) has just had a baby, but this isn’t enough for him to change his ways and think about anything other than himself. He promptly tries to sell the baby to some sort of underground adoption ring, without asking the mother’s permission, but this sets off a whole range of problems which he tries his best to swindle his way through.

This was my only disappointment of the set. As with all the other titles, the quality of the filmmaking is still of an impressive standard, with the Dardennes’ carefully crafted long takes, wonderful naturalism and brilliant performances, but as a whole the film didn’t work for me. The main problem was the fact that I really didn’t like the main character so didn’t care about his story. In the earliest scenes, his relationship with Sonia is well portrayed and their bond is strong and natural, but once he steals the baby and sells it, I struggled to find any sympathy for him. You could see he was not going to be a great father from the offset, but this key plot point seemed far fetched even for someone like him, which took me out of the story. Due to this I found the film’s coda a little hard to swallow too, although the climax preceding it is very effective. This is kicked off with a bike chase which shows how the directors can shoot an ‘action’ sequence with more suspense and excitement than most Hollywood blockbusters without requiring crashes, explosions or special effects.

The Silence of Lorna

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Arta Dobroshi, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione
Running Time: 105 min
Year: 2008


The Dardennes return to the theme of immigration whilst employing a few thriller tropes in The Silence of Lorna, with the titular character (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian emigrant in Belgium, involved in a couple of sham marriages to gain Belgian citizenship for herself and a shady Russian so that she can earn enough money to buy a snack shop with boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj). At the start of the film she is set to marry Claudy (Renier), a junkie that is in it for a big payout. The plan hatched by Lorna’s ‘keeper’ Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione) is to give Claudy an overdose soon ofter the marriage to end it ‘cleanly’, leaving Lorna free to marry the Russian. However, when Claudy becomes set on cleaning up his act and wants Lorna to help, she feels sympathy for him and does everything she can to help keep Fabio from killing him.

This is a harsh look at a group of people that use people like objects or animals and isn’t an easy watch. Luckily, although seemingly cold in the first third, Lorna is a strong and sympathetic character despite the shady world she is part of and Dobroshi’s performance is powerful as is to be expected from a lead in a Dardenne brothers film. I wasn’t quite as enamoured with The Silence of Lorna as I was with most of the other films in the set though. For one I think the slightly more convoluted and occasionally far-fetched story doesn’t suit the directors’ uncluttered style. There are still powerful moments though and although I didn’t find it as snappily gripping as their other films, it remains curiously engrossing and intelligently constructed.

The Kid With the Bike

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile De France, Jérémie Renier
Running Time: 87 min
Year: 2011


The latest film in the set, but the first I saw, is this year’s (in the UK at least) The Kid With the Bike. It tells the story of Cyril (Thomas Doret) a young boy that has been abandoned by his father (Renier yet again in a nice subversion of his role in La Promesse) so lives in a children’s home. He refuses to believe that his dad would give up on him like that though and continuously tries to head out to find him on his one most important possession, his bike. Along the way he (literally in their first scene together) latches onto Samantha (Cécile De France), a kindly hairdresser who agrees to foster him on weekends. The two grow a powerful bond as Cyril gets into trouble with the local youths and attempts to come to terms with his relationship with his father.

Maybe it’s just because it was the first Dardenne brothers film I saw, but this is my favourite title of the set and it’s sure to end up on my top ten list of films of the year. Reminding me of early Ken Loach (as many of the films here do), this tells a touching story taking place in a socially deprived setting that never feels melodramatic or politically preachy (unlike some of Loach’s later work). There’s a wonderful balance of naturalism and carefully and tightly structured drama. Doret is excellent as the young lead, the directors let his natural character and mannerisms shine through, never forcing a ‘performance’ out of him. He’s an annoyingly incessant little kid, but in a beguiling way that feels very real. His character’s relationship with his surrogate mother Samantha is beautifully touching, yet still raw and unflinching and his relationship with his father is devastating. The finale threatens to get cheesy when the core elements are tied together very nicely, but an unusual and at first quite shocking coda makes up for this.

The Dardennes Collection is out now on DVD, released by Artificial Eye. The discs seem to just be the solo releases from their back catalogue, but that’s not a problem. Picture quality and sound seem fine – they’re not slick polished productions so you can’t get too detailed about it, but I didn’t detect any noticeable transfer or audio issues.

There are relatively few extra features for a set featuring so many films, but these are all still solid, welcome additions that probably do as good a job as needed. Other than a couple of trailers, it’s only the later three films that have anything on their discs. The Child has an interview with the brothers about their inspiration behind the story and approach. The Silence of Lorna has another interview with them running at 36min and is conducted by a fan of their work, who is maybe too gushing, but the interview remains a fascinating look at the brothers’ directing processes and detailed planning of their films. There’s also an interview with the charming lead actress Arta Dobroshi which shows how hard she worked for the role (she even learned French from scratch to be in the film!). The Kid With the Bike has an interesting 30 min featurette where the brothers return to Seraing where the film (and several of their other films) were shot and precisely go through the camera moves and mis-en-scene of each scene. It’s an odd approach, but shows how precise and carefully thought through their work is. Added to this is an interview with Cécile De France, who is very cheerful and seems rather grateful to get the role despite having had quite a successful career already – which goes to show how respected the two directors are.

So it’s hardly got the special features of the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions and the films aren’t all 100% perfect, but the overall quality is so high that I can’t recommend this enough – forget the Avengers 6-Movie Set or the Dark Knight Trilogy, this is the box set you should really have under your Christmas tree.

Whole Set:

David Brook
RowThree's UK correspondent.

2 Comments

  1. My disappointment with The Child was pretty much solely down to the fact that what the lead character did was so indefensible that I Iost all sympathy with him and belief in any of his actions. All other aspects of the film were fantastic, but it lost me on a personal level where the other films sucked me in. Maybe it’s my current broodiness, but selling your own new born baby for money? Surely nobody is going to do that so flippantly?

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