God is dead, we know it. We’re alone, we know it.
Where do we find hope, redemption and a glint of magic in the godless, post-industrial brutality of late capitalism? In the eyes of filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the answers can only be found inside ourselves, within the terms of reality that we inhabit. There is no other world to look to. There is no divine intervention waiting around the corner. There is only the world of the real and the choices we make and actions we take within it. We must carve out redemption, one both secular and spiritual, within the seemingly impossible economic odds of the 21st century global economy by transcending the limits the economy puts on us.
The Dardenne brothers’ films are intense character studies of the cost of survival at a time when survival gets more and more difficult as the unemployment rolls rise, factories close, and the value of the dollar and the Euro decline. The films provide portraits of an economy where people are caught in the traffic of economic exchanges and are as disposable as the cheap commodities that surround them. However, as bleak as the economic realism of these films is, at their core we can always see both the fragility of human nature and the potential for redemption in the godless world of capital. It’s in this hope that we see spirituality leaking through the cracks of the very concrete physical world of commerce, traffic and economic despair.
Uncompromisingly realistic portraits of people at odds with their post-industrial working-class Belgian settings, the Dardennes’ films focus on a broken down social system that is as fractured as the economy. They operate like intense character studies of individuals who are casualties of economics and bad choices. The characters are placed within the very realistic natural environment of working and lower-class Belgium. Dardennes’ films provide singularly focused and intimate studies within the context of a Darwinian economy that promotes the survival of the individual at the expense of others. At the heart of the films are economic choices and the repercussions that result from them. The choices include everything from a woman so desperately seeking employment that she sells out the only person in the world who is kind to her (Rosetta, 1999), to a man selling own baby son for money (L’Enfant, 2005), to a woman selling her own body for citizenship (Lorna’s Silence, 2008), to a man dumping his kid at a state orphanage because the child is economically inconvenient and then selling the kid’s bike for economic profit (The Kid With A Bike, 2011).
The Dardennes’ films, with their focus on a disposable economy that makes for disposable people are very timely. But they also communicate a broader message, suggesting that it’s possible to reach out beyond a life of barebones survival simply by connecting with the humanity inside ourselves and those around us. Part of the reason this works, given their outwardly depressing subject matter, is that they do not beat their economic message over the audience’s head. Their cinema is immediate, so real, especially in its less “dramatic” moments, that it flirts with banality.
While the situations within their films could seem extreme, the Dardennes avoid the heightened cinematic form of melodrama. Rather, they are working in emotional and economic realism. The films operate with a documentary-like immediacy. The camera closes in on and follows the characters with such relentless pursuit that we almost feel like we are inhabiting them. This effect is powerfully enhanced by the Dardennes’ refusal to provide the sort of back story that helps audiences understand that something important is happening. If melodrama depends on such information, their cinema works on the contrary principle, confining us to a tightly circumscribed now that makes it very difficult to see the big picture.
In Rosetta, for example, we understand the character’s desperate economic circumstances by her actions – chasing her drunk mother through a field, filling a water bottle at the side of her trailer, hustling for jobs in the city or reciting to herself in bed, “I just want a normal life.” In L’Enfant we are thrust into the middle of a world of empty transaction through the character Bruno, who will do anything for a buck, including selling his own baby. We don’t know where he came from or what made him the way he is. All we know is that he makes very bad economic decisions right now: all the drama of the film is played out in the immediate present. His economic reality is delivered through small moments – such as the fact that he stashes his extra clothing behind an empty shipping container at the seaside and spends his nights in a homeless shelter. In Lorna’s Silence it takes nearly half the film to unfold the complete story of her circumstances. We are thrown together in media res with Lorna and Claudy (who turns out to be her junkie husband for hire), and it is only through actions that unfold in the present – Claudy’s attempt at sobriety, Lorna’s interactions with the pimp taxi driver Fabio or her exchange with Claudy’s family at his funeral – that we are given some sense of the characters other than how they exist in the immediate presence of the film.
It is actions and not stories that reveal details in Dardennes’ films. All the characters are prisoners of that tightly circumscribed now. Whatever emotional depthis found in the films comes through the characters’ expressions and immediate actions. There are no great revelatory flashbacks. There are only actions and consequences. This makes the decisions characters reach so much more effective because it makes them less easy. We are not given simple answers. Instead we are given a set of circumstances and watch how the characters respond to them, how they choose to survive and how they must then reconcile with the choices they have made.
Because of this austere temporal minimalism, many people have perceived the Dardennes’ films as lacking in action, as stories in which nothing happens. The truth is that this is an illusion. It’s just that events occur at a level that we can only access, like the characters, from such a narrow perspective that we can’t get distance from them. We are witnessing the deterioration of the global economy, as the characters are thrown into immediate economic circumstances and hit the ground running. The Dardennes’ characters are constantly on the move. In fact, they rarely sit still. In their most recent film, The Kid With A Bike eleven-year-old Cyril enters the movie in the first shot and, aside from two short scenes, never leaves the screen and rarely sits still. Even when he is trying to get a few extra seconds of sleep, he is a ball of energy. Desperately trying to reconnect with the father who dumped him out of economic convenience, while also trying to dodge the truth of his abandonment, Cyril wears a red shirt or a red jacket, like a new kind of Red Riding Hood making his way through the post-industrial forest of adults, class, heartache, and survival. He runs, fights, climbs trees, and, more than anything, rides his bike. He moves with the speed of lightning, never sitting still for a moment, as if motion itself will keep the hard truth from catching up with him.
Cyril’s attire is a common motif in Dardennes’ films. The characters wear a signature red piece of apparel – red pants, t-shirt, or jacket – as if the filmmakers are providing a target for our eyes, insisting that we keep our eyes on the characters and not let go. Lorna’s Silence opens with the sound of Lorna’s heels hitting the sidewalk in rapid fire. The film then follows her (wearing a pair of red pants or red shirt) through her hustle for citizenship and finally liberation in madness. Lorna is always on the move –rushing to her job at the dry cleaners, hooking up with her pimp Fabio, running to the clinic to meet Claudy, or beating herself against a doorframe. Finally she runs away to the woods where she comes to rest in an old abandoned cabin outside the fray of economic traffic and in the quiet retreat of her madness. Rosetta is also always on the go. Plummeting through the movie like a hurled block of determined cement, she rushes from her trailer to the city, runs through a field to collect her boots, and walks the streets in her relentless search for employment. Frequently the only sound in the movie is of Rosetta’s rushed and panting breath punctuated by the sounds of traffic and commerce. Likewise in L’Enfant, Bruno is the physical embodiment of the hustle, always on the move scheming for more money, spare changing on the streets, pushing his baby around like so much black market merchandise, or hopping on a scooter to steal purses.
The camera zooms into the characters’ faces for close-ups, asking us to look inside them and experience life through their eyes. Sometimes the camera is so close it becomes almost claustrophobic, characters filling the screen to such an extent that we feel overwhelmed by what they are feeling. We relentlessly track the protagonists, following right behind them or looking directly into their eyes. The camera fluctuates between long takes that closely focus on the characters’ faces which barely contain the emotions that they suppress for the sake of economic survival and fast tracking shots as the characters race through an economic environment that is leading them into head-on collisions with disaster.
Even when characters are at rest, we feel like they are moving. This is not an economy that allows for rest. In The Kid With A Bike, Cyril sleeps with his body so tense and taut that his sleep becomes a state of active resistance against the reality closing in on him. In Lorna’s Silence, we never actually see the title character sleep. Instead we witness her in bed, attempting to shut out the economic reality embodied by her junkie husband Claudy, who is playing his music loudly on the other side of the door. Likewise, when Rosetta is in bed, she’s not sleeping. Instead she lies there praying out loud for a better life, “a normal life,” or spends her time massaging her stomach which suffers from some kind of unspoken malady. Rest is only an extension of Rosetta’s desperation, a time that doesn’t offer escape from reality but rather gives space for reality to seep in.
It makes sense that the characters in these films are always on the move, since traffic of all variety is a key element in all the Dardennes’ films. Cars are everywhere, and cash is exchanged at every turn. Mostly set in the Belgium town of Seraing, an industrial town known for its steel factories and foundries which are now mostly idle, the setting communicates how the new post-industrial economy is at odds with the industrial past and the everyday working and lower class people trying to survive in a world moving too fast for them to get their footing.
The primary exterior soundtrack for Dardennes’ films is that of automobiles rushing from here to there. Cars are parked along streets, driving along highways, turning corners, stopped at red lights. Their engines are going, and their horns are honking. Buses and freight trains rumble by. Traffic on freeways moves at high speeds. The vehicles are not romanticized cars of a bygone era. Just like the characters within the films, the cars are of the now – the present day economy. The streets are full of newish small cars from Asia and Europe, the automobiles of a new global economy. They are not rundown beaters, nor are they fancy cars. They are everyday cars for everyday working people, and they are in motion everywhere. The characters cross busy streets rushing between the cars (Rosetta), beg for spare change from drivers in cars stuck in traffic (L’Enfant), are transported like so much merchandise for sale in cars (Lorna’s Silence), or try to outrun traffic and all it stands for on a bike (The Kid With A Bike).
The Dardennes’ cinema resonates for anyone who has experienced places that progress has seemed to pass by, from the industrial cities of northern England to the idle shipyards of Korea, from the abandoned factory complexes of Siberia to the Rust Belt in the United States. But it is able to do this because it is so deeply rooted in the place the filmmakers know best, their hometown of Seraing. Part of what makes their films seem claustrophobically bleak is the this specific Belgian landscape far removed from the Europe that tourists travel to see. They show us a Belgium suffocating in post-industrial gloom, a place where the sun doesn’t shine, grass doesn’t grow, and trees appear to have been replaced by endless rows of nondescript concrete block buildings. There is rarely any sound that doesn’t come directly from the narrative. Most music comes from within the story (the ring of a cellphone, a radio or a CD thrown into a boombox).
Because the films are so wedded to delivering such a clinically pure sense of reality, they often give an illusion that they have been made without style. But this seeming lack of style is intentional. In a sense, it is the Dardennes’ style. This is cinematic naturalism that strips the commercial veneer of films and consciously resists the fast paced world of commerce in which the films are set. Their films refuse to show off. They are not vehicles for mass marketing nor are they places for escape. Rather, they provide us glimpses of reality and put us in the middle of very difficult circumstances which are not sugar-coated with false beauty, fantasy or special effects.
This does not mean that the films are not meticulously constructed. Every single detail in the films – where the characters are placed within the frame, the mise-en-scene, the tiniest bit of spot color or glimpse of a bit of sunlight or grass – is intentional. Spot color pops up in the most unlikely places giving us an improbable source of visual relief: an orange garbage can, a blue mailbox, a potted plant in the corner of an otherwise dreary apartment. The smallest act, such as eating a single boiled egg for dinner, can contain enormous economic significance. The use of ambient light and sound immerses us in the environment of the films and makes the audience feel it experientially. This is not cinema that projects us out of the real, but instead immerses us in the real, often to the point of discomfort.
Amidst the sound of cars and the periodic insertion of diegetic music, other soundscapes provide an aural experience to the films. The sound of characters in motion – feet walking, breathing, gasping, or just the sound of silence; the sounds of people at work – power saws, a steam presser, cash registers and shampoo sinks – provide another layer of sound. There are rarely any moments of quiet in this world. Small details remind us that we are firmly grounded in an economy that revolves around mass communication – cell phones and ATMs seem omnipresent.
Despite their seemingly bare-bones approach, the Dardennes make meticulously constructed films that build through layers of image, sound, and body. Indeed, the body is central to how the Dardennes’ films function politically. They create portraits of the body politic as individuals inhabit it. Their films are less about the broader world of capitalism, and more precisely about the individual internalization of capitalism. Certainly the way the camera attaches itself to the bodies of the protagonists as they move through the films puts the body front and center, but there are deeper and more complex layers to how the body operates in these films other than mere cinematic proximity. In fact, one of the repeating themes in the films is how the body becomes a kind of wall between human emotions and the world in which the body must survive. The body is a vehicle of survival, but the terms of that survival are often so dire that the body also provides a barrier from feeling.
In their early film Rosetta, the young girl so desperately longs for “normalcy” in an economy which has kicked her to the curb that she literally internalizes her economic despair until it becomes a physical burden. Rosettta heaves giant sacks of flour and heavy propane tanks, her body weighted down by the desperate burden of her need for employment. At times it feels like the weight of the economy is literally crushing down on her as she tries to claw her way out of her circumstances. Rosetta’s desperation and oppression seem to be rooted in the very internalization of the dog-eat-dog capitalism in which she lives. Perhaps that is source of the mysterious illness that causes her pain in her abdomen. Perhaps she has ingested the poison of the Darwinian economy, one that causes her to betray the only person who offers her compassion.
Lorna’s Silence provides an uncompromisingly realistic picture of a cannibalistic economy in which the female body and humanity in general are so much disposable merchandise in the grip of economic interests. Focused on the story of Lorna, a young Albanian woman who participates in a marriage-for-fale scheme to obtain Belgian citizenship, the film is a relentlessly hardcore look at how this young woman navigates her body as a survival mechanism in a viciously brutal economy. A kind of prostitution narrative, Lorna’s Silence does not fall prey to the usual hyper-melodramatics found in such tales. Instead, it shows us the matter-of-fact oppression of global capitalism as literalized in the sale of the body. Within the prison of these circumstances, the only liberation is in madness. It is about the prostitution that is epidemic under global capitalism, a system where human lives are so much merchandise to be used and disposed of according to the economic forces that drive it. On a basic economic level, the prostitution in Lorna’s Silence is no different from the prostitution we see in L’Enfant where a man sales his baby for profit and in Rosetta where a girl sells out the only friend she has just to get a job.
So many of the Dardennes’ films are about the cash economy and how the body lives within that economy. In L’Enfant, Bruno sells his girlfriend Sonia’s baby for cash, but before that he spends all her cash on meaningless commodities like a trendy jacket. He puts the jacket on and says money doesn’t mean anything and that he can get more. When he wears the jacket, Bruno is literally dressed in the disposable economy which he exploits at the expense of others and ultimately at the expense of his own soul. Bruno is the literal physical embodiment of a throw-away economy. In a way, Dardennes’ films are Faust narratives, tales in which people sell their soul to the devil, but in this case the devil doesn’t reside in some imagined underworld; rather it exists in the very material world of cash, traffic and exploitation.
Lorna’s Silence pushes the body and its relationship to cash into the realm of the global economy as her body is literally caught in the corruption of international trade. The very first shot of Lorna is of her hands counting out cash to a bank. She pays cash to make phone calls, cash to buy medicine. She negotiates a cash relationship with her husband Claudy, the two of them constantly exchanging Claudy’s envelope of cash back and forth. She needs cash to solidify her plans to open a café with Sokol, the man she wants to marry for love instead of cash. She negotiates cash transactions with the economic opportunist and marriage-for-sale marketer (a.k.a. pimp) Fabio. She is offered cash to be silent and offered cash to sell her body. She goes to the bank and counts out more cash to secure a loan. Cash is counted into registers, counted into envelopes, shoved into pockets, stuffed into car vents. Lorna is constantly locking cash in drawers and lockers, stashing cash, exchanging cash. Cash is everywhere in this movie from the very beginning to the very end, and Lorna’s body is right in the middle of it. As she navigates her way through all these exchanges of cash, Lorna’s body is rigid and fraught with the tension between what she feels inside herself – her sense of personal responsibility to Claudy, whom the mob wants to kill, and her need to survive in the cold heartless transaction-based world she occupies.
Lorna’s dilemma is ultimately the dilemma of so many characters in Dardennes’ films. They draw our attention to people like Lorna who are compelled to silence their emotions and their moral responsibility to others for the benefit of their own personal survival. Their emotions are locked and silenced inside their bodies, and their bodies move through the films not unlike the cars that zoom through so many scenes. It is only when the characters break that emotional silence that they are able to transcend the limits of their economic circumstances and find grains of hope in what appears to be a hopeless world.
Some people have criticized the Dardennes latest film The Kid With A Bike for being a kind of sell-out film because it wears its redemption so obviously on the surface. The irony in thiscritique is that every Dardennes’ film somehow concerns the pressure to sell out and the consequences characters face when they give in to that pressure. Cyril agrees to participate in a robbery and then uses his share of the take to try to persuade his father that he isn’t an economic burden. But his father does not want his dirty money or him. By the time Cyril makes it back to his new home with his foster parent Samantha, the police know he did it. As it turns out, not only has he “sold out” for nothing, his punishment is to have Samantha pay his victims for his crime. The fact that she is willing to do so without hesitation imbues The Kid With a Bike with the possibility of a more happy ending than the Dardennes’ earlier films may promise. But it is one that quite literally comes at a price.
Seen in this light, The Kid With A Bike isn’t a sellout. It is a view from the other side of previous Dardennes films. Their earlier films focus on the people who make choices at the cost of others. In The Kid With A Bike,we see the perspective of the person who has been hurt by those choices. Certainly the movie offers more tangible hope in Cyril’s connection with Samantha, the rescuer of both bike and kid, but all the Dardennes’ films lead their protagonists to a place outside of themselves, where they eventually are prompted to see beyond their own self interests and survival and to connect with others.
In L’Enfant, this requires Bruno to first jeopardize his own well-being to buy back Sonia’s baby, but then to sacrifice his own liberty to save the young boy Steve who Bruno exploits in a robbery scheme. In Rosetta, redemption simply means reaching out to the young man the protagonist has hurt and whose well being she has jeopardized for her own economic benefit. Her guilt and therefore her humanity leaks out of her as her tears flow and she recognizes that connecting with another person ultimately makes survival more livable than being alone. In Lorna’s Silence grace comes when Lorna acknowledges Claudy as an individual and sees him as a person with a name, a life and human needs and not just as a disposable junkie who can be killed off for economic profit. The move from the lone isolated world of individual survival towards a more collective humanity where threads of human connection and compassion can be reclaimed exists in all the Dardennes narratives, not just their latest breakthrough film. In The Kid With A Bike, we just happen to see the other side of the story – the kid who has been dumped for economic convenience and how he eventually connects with the world through Samantha.
Cyril is solidly situated within the fast moving economy of other Dardennes’ films, but he is also very different. In a film like L’Enfant, every adult and child seems to be affected – or infected – by a hard cash economy. The young adult lead Bruno acts with the irresponsibility of a child, selling his own son and anything else he can get his hands on for cash. For Bruno, money is both everything and nothing. He is the embodiment of the irresponsibility and disposable nature of the new economy, driven solely by the acquisition of money which he throws away on useless junk. The kids in L’Enfant are equally driven by cash. The young boy Steve conspires with Bruno to deal in stolen goods and lift bags from unsuspecting ladies. Bruno is a kid who never grows up, his relationship to money being a manifestation of his lack of personal responsibility, while the kids in L’Enfant have grown up too soon, driven to steal and stuff their pockets with cash to be part of the world of capital and acquisition which is zooming all around them.
On the other hand, Cyril is completely naïve to the world of a cash economy. Money means nothing to him. All he wants is his dad. Cyril’s motivation is not cash, even when he steals. He gets drawn into the plan of Wes, an older boy with a reputation for exploiting young innocents, because he wants to be accepted by the older boy as a kind of surrogate father. That wish fails miserably when Wes shuts the door in Cyril’s face after the robbery, just like his father does. Wes is just another component of the rest of the fast-moving world trafficking in cash, petty crime, and stolen goods. He named himself after a character in a video game (Resident Evil), and he sees life as a video game (a kind of dog-eat-dog marketplace for lower working classes) where winning means stealing whatever he can get and using anyone he can to help him. In other words, he is a character from earlier Dardennes’ films, and he would fit in perfectly with Bruno in L’Enfant – both boys who never grow up and whose drive for money overrides their drive for human compassion.
Yet as dire as the narratives are in Dardennes’ films, human compassion ultimately wins out in the end. But it is never overly sentimentalized compassion. It comes through small deeds and actions committed by people who have been pushed to the extreme margins of the social economy. It is very much grounded in the interactions of the real world. As Luc Dardenne states in the quote above, “God is dead and we’re alone.” If that is the case, how do we find god when we are alone in a godless world? In the world of the Dardennes, it is found through simple human exchanges, by deciding to put our own self-interests aside to reach out to someone else. It comes when we refuse to be alone but instead become part of collective humanity, even if that collective consists of a couple of people holding onto each other on the outskirts of a trailer park.
The films provide reconciliation only within the limits of the environment of the films. These moments of compassion don’t always provide a fix. In Lorna’s Silence, Claudy is dead and Lorna goes mad, but her act of compassion frees her from the prison of her own self-interest. In L’Enfant, reconciliation comes when Bruno breaks down and cries in jail. Even though he is literally imprisoned in jail, his soul and humanity are liberated through his personal sacrifice and tears. In other words, god is an ideal, not a reality, and redemption, what passes for the spiritual in a world constructed to crush the spirit, is only possible when individuals exert control within the constraints of their economic reality. It comes in small yet huge moments of individual sacrifice that happen in the real world of the here and now.
What The Kid With The Bike does is to bring this notion of sacrifice and compassion staunchly to the surface of the film. It is a story of hope for a hopeless time, and it reminds us of the potential for human compassion even in the most dire of circumstances.While the situations in Dardennes’ films are uncompromisingly real, the characters who navigate their way through the films (even at their lowest of low) ultimately appear as fleeting angelic spirits caught in the material world of cell phones, cash exchanges, credit cards, and traffic. They are damaged angels who inhabit a world that has little use for angels. Under the seemingly hard and self-serving surface of the Brunos, Lornas and Rosettas are vulnerable people who have been pushed to extremes in the extreme environment of late capitalism. A fragment of innocence remains in the characters even when they’re doing abominable things.
The reality of this world is relentless, leaving little room for magic other than the redemption that the characters find within the economic limits of their surroundings, yet the Dardennes hint that even in this hardcore world there are glimpses of magic that can be found in the margins of the lives of these marginal characters. Amidst the traffic, cash, commodities and exchange, the characters in Dardennes’ films are able to find nooks and crannies of magic within the congestion of the real. Sometimes these moments are found only in a fleeting glimpse. Often these bits of magic occur on the margins of the city, just like the characters themselves exist at the margins of society.
When Rosetta keeps her boots stashed in a pipe in a field, it’s like her secret portal, removed from the dirty messy life of her drunken mother and the trailer park and the streets of the city that she scours for employment. That one little pipe is like a safe place in the wilderness of a grassy field just beyond the fences and roads of the city. Even in the relentlessly hardcore world of L’Enfant, little glimpses of magic can be seen in the way that Bruno and Sonia frolic by the seaside or the way that Bruno stashes his possessions under a dumpster. In Lorna’s Silence, the title character looks onto a garden through the dirty windows of a café and for a moment sees the possibility of a world beyond the transactional realm that owns her body, and she finally retreats into a cabin hidden in the trees next to the road. Cyril in The Kid With A Bike has his secret place in an old shipping container stashed in the woods by the very same road that we see in L’Enfant. These characters have found secret places that exist in the cast off remnants of the world of traffic (old shipping containers, broken cement pipes, abandoned cabins) and give them tiny places where they can feel momentarily free even if that freedom comes with madness.
Somehow, even in the most dire of circumstances, the characters continue to believe that anything is possible. Lorna believes she will open a café and live happily ever after. Rosetta believes she’ll get a job and live a “normal life.” The childish Bruno believes that he will always live a life of play and will never have to grow up as long as he treats money and people like so many disposable toys. Cyril believes he will be reunited with his father. Eventually the characters have to face the fact that what they wish for and what is real are two different things. They have to acknowledge that what they believe in is not a possibility because of the force of the economy in which they life. However, that does not mean that there is no hope in these films.
All the characters are in some form of denial, mostly by working so hard to suppress any emotional connection to the economic reality of their lives. But nothing can be accomplished when one is in denial. It is only by acknowledging hopelessness that the characters in these films let go of denial and make room for the possibility of a new kind of hope that is grounded in the real. All the characters, like Lorna, have to break their silence in order to be free, in order to not be alone, in order to find some proxy for god in the godless world of 21st century capitalism. The spiritual world, it turns out, is not a place that exists beyond the one we occupy in the now, but is found in little places inside this one. Every Dardennes film ends not with the sound of people, but the sounds of the world the people occupy, reminding us that this is the world we have and that we have to work with each other within its terms. We can choose to live in it as isolated individuals, putting our self-interest first and selling out our humanity for personal gain, or we can share it with others in our struggle for survival and grace.