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March 12, 2012


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Tom Block

My main discomfort with the Bresson comparison lies in the obvious similarity between the endings of "Pickpocket" and "L'Enfant", though that similarity could be said to be more with Dostoevsky than Bresson. The ending of "L'Enfant"--though it's still my favorite of the Dardennes' movies--bothers me both because it feels preconceived and because Renier hits his bottom as much from physical as moral exhaustion. What saves it is that, even though he's been redeemed, his situation is still so far from clear and his prospects so far from rosy that we can't say for sure that he's been saved.

Robin Wood mentions this aspect in this terrific essay:


Thom Andersen has a good one, too:


Anyway, I think the humanist argument is close to a non-starter as a link between the brothers and Bresson. In terms of approach, the neorealists are much closer. Bresson is more appropriate in terms of characters wishing for, and sometimes finding, some bit of grace in the worst possible circumstances, and in the intense localized focus on physical tasks such as Rosetta pulling her boots from the drain-pipe every day. These events are so much like ritual and their significance is so completely extra-verbal that they remind me of William Carlos Williams' line "No ideas but in things". Even an outburst of activity like the long scooter chase near the end of "L'Enfant"--which I think is one of the great action scenes in the history of the medium--has the same irreducible quality Williams was talking about: you just can't put into words what that chase means without diminishing it. (It also tickles me when critics opine that the title of "L'Enfant" just "might" refer to Renier rather than the actual baby; the same people probably wonder whether the title of "Chinatown" refers to something more than the neighborhood where Evelyn Mulwray's butler lives.)

Anyway, I can't wait to see "Kid", though it's unclear that it's even gonna open in SF. Which'd be a pisser, for sure.

warren oates

Yeah, nobody here is trying to say Bresson's a humanist. Precisely the ways in which he isn't even when he's focusing on the mundane activities and earthly suffering of his models is part of what makes his films endlessly interesting to me.

The work portrayed in Bresson's films is always what it is plus, like you say, something else ineffable. Except I don't usually feel that something else in the Dardennes' films. In THE SON it's there in the carpentry scenes mostly because of the huge mysterious tension (and then, once you know the secret, the great dramatic irony) of what Olivier suspects/knows about his student Francis.

I guess I also feel like I've seen more compelling neo-Neorealism too, in something like, say, CHOP SHOP.

J. Priest

I really liked "The Kid with a Bike," I think it's one of their best. I don't think you can knock a filmmaker, or any artist, for using the same approach to their work when they're exploring new ground within those parameters, and that's what the Dardennes have often done with their later realist films. It helps that they're working with rich, morally complex material, stories that are really suited by their style.


Warren, what is humanism to you? I mean, if you had to define it, what would you say? Not trying to be argumentative, I'm genuinely curious. You wouldn't say MOUCHETTE is a humanist work?

warren oates

I'd say MOUCHETTE has a deep humanity to it. But I wouldn't say it's humanism. I suppose those who love Bresson are forever groping after the right kind of language to describe the effects of his films: Transcendental Style, etc. It's easier to say what his films aren't then what they are. Whereas I suppose what I'm talking about with the Dardennes vis-a-vis other filmmakers whose work I prefer like Bresson, Haneke and even sometimes Ramin Bahrani is that, I don't know, like that line from INTO THE WOODS "they're not good, they're not bad, they're just nice" except substitute "humanist" and you get what I mean.

The Dardennes seem deeply interested in the suffering of ordinary people the same way the great Neorealists were, but I mostly don't see anything else beyond that. There's usually no mystery or transcendence or anything beyond what we see. There's no particular interest in capturing a larger sense of the time and place like most older Neorealists. There's not a particularly great sense of storytelling, in spite of the many films of theirs that supposedly have great twists (another comparison springs to mind: watch REVANCHE with LORNA'S SILENCE). And there's no ambition to the kind of formalism that I love in Bresson. I'm almost always left wanting something more.


I haven't read A TALE OF TWO CITIES in more than thirty years. But I thinks its reasonable to say that major Dickens is THE PICKWICK PAPERS, OLIVER TWIST, DAVID COPPERFIELD, HARD TIMES, LITTLE DORRITT, BLEAK HOUSE and GREAT EXPECTATIONS.


I'm very much looking forward to KID WITH A BIKE, but Peter, I have to admit, I must read different critics than you if you think the "widespread critical assumption" is "good=reinvention"; my impression is it's the opposite tack. And I think there should be room for both directors who are constantly trying to challenge themselves and directors who, like the Dardennes, are playing new variations on the same theme.

Forgive me if I'm coming off a tad defensive on the subject; I'm currently reading a study on Louis Malle, one of my favorite all-time filmmakers, and coming across reviews that call him a dilettante, which I think is outrageous.

Peter Lenihan

I think there should be too, and if it came across that I was saying that only directors like Ford & Ozu & the Dardennes matter then I really misrepresented my own position--the only point I was trying to make, and I think it's essentially the same one you are making here, was that a director shouldn't be faulted for returning to familiar territory, or even making the same movie over and over, no more than a director should be faulted for trying new things. Both are valid; I generally prefer and admire the former approach, but that doesn't mean it's "better," or that it's more valid. Again, if I didn't express that, then I misspoke (miswrote?). My bad.

Maybe we do read different critics; I dunno. To use two more examples: Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica and Garrel's Un ete brulant, two great, great recent films, received some pretty withering notices in some corners for repeating the director's basic thematic and aesthetic conceits. In both cases I think that's somewhat true, although more in the case of the latter than the former, and in both cases that's a huge part of what I responded to in them and admired. In the case of Un ete brulant, I've come across VERY few reviews that don't consist completely of this-is-rehashed-senile-crap-we've-seen-before-isms, and I mean, I think it's an amazing movie, so when I talk about The Kid with a Bike I'm probably guilty of talking about other movies too.

Apologies for the length.


I kind of had both reactions when I saw it back in October. For much of the movie it felt like Dardennes-light. We haven't just seen that world before in Dardenne movies, we've seen it before in a lot of other movies. But about the last third, and particularly the last scene of the film I was genuinely moved, and a lot of narrative choices sort of locked into place for me in retrospect. I'm still not feeling it as one of their best works, but it is an undeniably strong work, and one I hope to revisit soon.

Toby Miller

Usually I just sit on the sidelines and watch these discussions unfold, but I have some information on the last 10 minutes of The Kid With A Bike - which I too had small issues with. Spoilers abound ahead.

A few days ago I had the privilege of almost 45 minutes with Luc Dardenne, as part of a roundtable at which I was one of only two journalists. After the usual questions about story, tone and the working with the children, I brought up the ending. Other than the fact that having something happen to Cyril when you expect something to happen seems movie storytelling rather than naturalistic storytelling, the tidy wrapping up of the shopkeeper story undermined what I felt was one of the strongest moments in the film: Cyril's reaction to being told he wasn't forgiven by the shopkeeper's son. It is the first time a childish action has an adult consequence and - I'd imagined - would niggle and haunt Cyril for years - the sour aftertaste of his short criminal life. This is all undermined by turning the shopkeeper's son into a convenient villain. Mr Dardenne had two answers: He thought the audience would leave the cinema thinking the shopkeeper's son would be planning revenge - so wanted to nip that worry in the bud, and he wanted the film to provide another example of a bad father figure. The thought of revenge hadn't entered my head, not for a film set so solidly in the real world, and the father figure angle doesn't work well either; the shopkeeper is eager to break the law, but only to protect his son, a stark contrast to Cyril's Father eagerly discarding his law breaking son. But I didn't push the point, I was talking to Luc Dardenne after all.

J. Priest

Plotting revenge would seem unrealistic, but addressing how the shopkeeper's son would carry this incident with him and how the film dramatized that seemed very reasonable to me.


'Kid' doesn't open in my area until May, but I (always) find this discussion of the Dardennes interesting. It seems that most people always bring up their influences, as if that is the major reason people bother watching/praising/financing their movies. Bresson and De Sica are obvious, intentional influences, especially on ROSETTA (and you could even throw in Rossellini's GERMANY YEAR ZERO, in my opinion). I think the humanist part comes from the viewer (as in, if the viewer isn't one, the movie probably ain't). Aside from the thematic material, I think their continual use of at-the-time unknown youth for many of their lead roles tends to be another checkmark on these generalizations.
But when comparing any of their films to Bresson or Neorealism or whatever, it seems like the debate about whether they are worthy champions of some sort of nebulous aesthetic torch hardly ever descends into questioning whether they are simply grave pastiche copycats. So, to me, that bodes well for them, if that makes any sense.

Kevyn Knox

Definitely not lesser Dardennes. It is actually my favourite Dardenne to date.

Chris L.

Humanistically speaking, I thought Ebert's review of THE SON was one of his most touching pieces. And the film made his Best of Decade list.
FWIW, I'm a longtime admiring reader of Roger AND Glenn.


I saw KID this morning and was pretty blown away, about as far from "minor Dardennes" as I can imagine (I have to admit, it won me with "You can hold me, but just not so tight," and never lost me from that point on). THE SON has always been my favorite of theirs, and KID would be a particularly fine companion piece.

And last night I saw ANATOMY OF A MURDER on the big screen. I'd only seen it once before, on VHS, and didn't see what the big deal was, but this time I was hugely impressed. And for once with the New Beverly, they managed to keep it in focus pretty much the whole time. Yay, New Beverly!


The first year I lived in the L.A. area, I found a revival house in Pasadena called the State Theater. For a few brief weeks I was able to enjoy excellent 35mm prints of such classics as ANATOMY OF A MURDER, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, THE HORSE'S MOUTH, THE OLD DARK HOUSE and LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME -- and then the place went under. It was an older theater, but roomy and comfy enough, with a large screen. I always appreciated the New Beverly, but as a venue it paled in comparison.

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