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The Dardenne Brothers’ Films and Our Moral Want

Walter Moss: What is so valuable about Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s films is that they reflect tensions within us between the ego-driven drive to succeed in our capitalist world and, as Abraham Lincoln once phrased it, “the better angels of our nature.”
Dardenne Brothers

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

A central question in our twenty-first century secular consumer culture is, “How do we retain a moral core?” How in the midst of our rat race to earn enough money to meet our “needs” (which thanks to ads are ever expanding), how amidst all our technological gadgets and our media that constantly bombards us, do we stress such values as loving others and furthering the common good?

The overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to Pope Francis’s recent U.S. trip suggests that we Americans, despite all our secular preoccupations and entertainments, still yearn to see more goodness and kindness in the culture that surrounds us. Thus, there is a moral “want” among us in both senses of the word—want as a lack (as in a house in want of repair) and want in the more common sense of wishing for something.

In his address to Congress, Pope Francis urged legislators to work not towards expanding our present consumer culture, but towards implementing “a culture of care.” My guess is that many of us, whether traditionally religious or secularly progressive, would like to see our culture reflect more caring and less dog-eat-dog, individualistic getting ahead, but that collectively we lack the strong will, knowledge, and communal spirit to bring about much change.

What is so valuable about Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s films is that they reflect tensions within us between the ego-driven drive to succeed in our capitalist world and, as Abraham Lincoln once phrased it, “the better angels of our nature.”

What is so valuable about Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s films is that they reflect these tensions within us between the ego-driven drive to succeed in our capitalist world and, as Abraham Lincoln once phrased it, “the better angels of our nature.” These movies also awaken our empathy for those struggling to achieve meaningful lives. As Philip Mosely notes in his book on the Dardenne Brothers, “ethical concerns lie at the heart of their work.” Their films may be in French and set in and around Belgian industrial cities like Seraing and Liège, but the society their characters inhabit is similar enough to our own to seem familiar.

Rather than summarize or analyze each of the brothers’ two-decades of productions—La promesse (The Promise) (1996); Rosetta (1999); Le fils (The Son) (2002); L’Enfant (The Child) (2005); Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna's Silence) (2008); Le Gamin au vélo (The Kid with a Bike) (2011); and Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night) (2014)—I will merely make some comments about moral themes that run throughout them all. Those wishing more details about individual films can easily find reviews of them by Roger Ebert or other favorite reviewers in such publications as The New York Times. On the Hollywood Progressive site, Ed Rampell has recently reviewed Two Days, One Night.

Most of these films deal with Belgium’s less fortunate, those most vulnerable in capitalist society. Another similarity is that all the major characters face difficult moral choices. In The Promise we have illegal immigrants and a boy’s decision whether to continue helping his money-seeking father exploit an African woman or take difficult steps to treat her more compassionately. In Lorna’s Silence the main character (Lorna) is an Albanian immigrant who has obtained Belgian legal residency by a sham marriage to a drug addict named Claudy, who married her for the money he received. In an atmosphere that A. O. Scott of The New York Timesdescribes as one where “everything is for sale: sex, honor, dignity, life,” Lorna must decide whether or not to abet, and therefore profit from, the murder of Claudy.

In “The Child,” a film about the unwed Bruno and Sonia and the baby they have together, Bruno goes so far as to sell their infant so he can obtain such consumer items as matching coats for himself and Sonia and a rented convertible. Bruno seems to have been raised without any moral core. In a 2003 interview about their earlier film The Son, Luc Dardenne lamented the failure of parents to raise their kids with any strong ethical values. “We have nothing to say to our children anymore unless it is, ‘Hey, go play, get out of our hair! We like you. We give you birthday parties. We do everything you want, but we have absolutely nothing to say to you. We have nothing to pass on to you.’ That is a bit of what we felt and what we attempted to show, how adults were trying to be adolescents and not fathers, not mothers—just buddies.”

In such an atmosphere, children are left like pinballs bouncing among the bumps and lights of a capitalist consumer society that emphasizes getting and having. After Sonia, faints upon hearing that her baby has been sold, Bruno attempts to get the infant back, but it is unclear whether Bruno realizes the horrific nature of the moral (or more accurately immoral) choice he had previously made in selling their baby.

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In the earlier film The Son it is again a father (Oliver) who has to make a difficult moral decision—whether or not to help give direction to a teenage boy (Francis) who years earlier had killed Oliver’s own son. Like so many of the Dardenne film-children, Francis comes from a broken home and is not cherished—his mother’s boyfriend has no use for him. Oliver, who teaches carpentry to boys with troubled pasts, is himself divorced, perhaps partly due to the strains placed on his marriage by the death of his son. Oliver would like Francis to express deep sorrow and regret for his crime, but Francis does not do so. Instead he asks Oliver to be his guardian, not knowing that this man who is teaching him carpentry is even contemplating killing him. The Kid with a Bike presents us with another young troubled boy (Cyril). He has been left at an orphanage by a father who has moved away, is now living with another woman, and refuses his son’s attempts to reunite with him. If Cyril is ever to leave the orphanage permanently, he (like Francis in The Son) needs a guardian. The most likely candidate is Samantha, a hairdresser, who at first lets him stay with her on breaks from the orphanage. But Cyril is a difficult child who often gets in trouble, and Samantha’s boyfriend tells her she must choose who is more important to her, Cyril or himself. Samantha’s difficult ethical choice is whether, despite all the difficulties that would be entailed, she should become Cyril’s guardian.

Rosetta and Two Days, One Night each focus on a woman desperately seeking a job. In the first film she is a mere teenager living with an alcoholic mother in a trailer; in the second she is a married woman with children who lost her job after a nervous breakdown. Ultimately both women face the difficult decision of whether to try to obtain a job if it means that someone else will get fired or lose the position.

Thus, time and again the Dardenne characters, operating in a modern industrial society, are confronted with tough ethical choices. Are they going to be compassionate, loving people or are they (like Bruno who sells his child or Cyril’s father in the The Kid with a Bike) going to be more egotistic and put their own wants first?

two days one night

Two days, One Night

Although the Dardenne films are concerned with morality, they are also first class entertainment, featuring well-paced narratives and excellent acting. These are not “artsy” films made for intellectuals, but realistic treatments of the ethical dilemmas faced by ordinary people. In the dozen years from Rosetta to The Kid with a Bike, the Cannes Film Festivals presented their movies with more awards than those of any other directors in the festivals’ history.

Among the most notable of their actors is Olivier Gourmet, who was the father in both The Promise and The Son (for which he won a Cannes best-actor award), and who also appeared in several other Dardenne films. The various main children and women are also first-rate. The brothers’ latest film, Two Days, One Night, features Marion Cotillard playing the lead role of Sandra. Cotillard previously won the best-actress Oscar in Hollywood for portraying the French singer Édith Piaf in the La Vie en Rose (2007).

The ultimate question for us film fans is what type of films do we wish to see. In his review of Two Days, One Night, Ed Rampell writes, “Hollywood mass entertainment spectacles about zombies, vampires, alien invasion, superheroes, mindless violence and action fill the screen.” Are these the sort of movies we choose or would we rather see ones that enlighten us and make us think about human nature and moral choices? Ones that satisfy the often subconscious “moral want” that lies buried deep in our beings.

walter moss

If the later preference is for you, then go to Netflix or some other source and order one or more of the Dardenne brothers’ films. You can also be on the lookout for their next movie, La fille Inconnue (The Unknown Girl). It will be about a young doctor (Jenny) “who feels guilty after a young woman she refused to see winds up dead a few days later.”

Walter G. Moss