by Georgina Allan
"Their movies are made with a kindness and compassion that affects viewers, while provoking a desire for change"
Cinema is forever looking forward. To the next sequel or prequel; the next superhero in its cinematic universe or unnecessary remake; seeking the new actor to cherish or director to revere. Searching for the next buck to be made perhaps. But what I crave is something that speaks to the present without being too on the nose. Films which look and feel beautiful yet still show the socio-political problems in our midst. I always want cinema that can speak to many yet entertain and empower.
After watching The Dardenne Brothers' most recent films over the past few years I feel they have achieved this difficult task. While admittedly isolated to a specifically European arthouse crowd, revered in Cannes for decades, their films feel real, emotional and assured. Their cinema remains hugely down to earth, producing social realism without the bleakness of Ken Loach but retaining a strong message. When directors are so often compromised by producers and larger trends, this is increasingly rare. These are the types of films I believe should be produced and particularly distributed more.
Often, they centre on an individual struggling against a system, taking an intimate focus upon the routines, melancholia and heartbreak of everyday existence. Over the past few years it has been women and children that have become their protagonists; but it is their last three films - pre 2019 - that have affected me the most: the unintentional feminist dramas The Kid on A Bike (2011), Two Days, One Night (2014) and The Unknown Girl (2016).
In each we find women being active, warring against a tide of opposition, yet without the melodrama usually found in Hollywood films with similar structures. We often find them asking for help, being rejected and finding a resolution themselves. These are women who lack the patronising, precursory qualifier of ‘strong’. They are just women, and are portrayed as such during their mundane jobs and interactions with family, colleagues and their community.
In The Kid with a Bike, it is Samantha who is fighting to protect an unruly, abandoned foster child. She provides him with safety as he struggles to understand the rejection from his father and while he slowly gets pulled into a local criminal gang. Sandra from Two Nights, One Night, in the midst of recovering from a breakdown, has to persuade her coworkers at the factory she works in to forgo a bonus for her to avoid redundancy. The factory’s union gives her a weekend to persuade her colleagues to give up the meagre amount of money that they are all in need of to save herself and her family. Most recently it was Jenny, a doctor in The Unknown Girl, searching for the identity of a young girl whose death she feels implicated in.
She uncovers that the girl was trafficked for sex, taken across borders without an identity until she cares to find out. These women hide voraciousness under an everyday demeanor, generously helping others while remaining in steadfast control of their lives. We see them cry and fight, but these seem emotions relevant to everyone else surrounding them, the only difference being the film has decided to focus on them.
It is these kinds of women in film, who feel real and unencumbered by their gender, that I wish I saw more often. It is only when you finish one of the Dardenne’s films, that you realise you have sat through ninety minutes with a female protagonist whose gender is rarely, if ever, important to other characters or the film's plot, which is still so uncommon to see.
While dealing with women in such a thoroughly modern, un-showy way, the brothers also embed social and political problems within their stories. In the short run times, their films manage to fit themes, not limited but extending to, European borders, race, low income and public housing, without being patronising or self-aggrandising of their power to do so.
The Dardennes also never deal out the saccharine endings that could encumber such dramas. Instead they leave us wanting more from the characters beyond the time we spend with them. The characters' endings may or may not be satisfying, but we will never find out. The conclusions of these characters' stories are as if you have stepped deep into their lives for a brief moment, like striking up a conversation on a bus journey, learning of a person’s whole story but never seeing if their problems were truly fixed.
I hope that films such as this reach a wider audience. Arthouse can’t keep confining work that could say something relevant from a wider populace. As it currently stands, it is frustrating to see cinema like this is not released more often, even though it is cheap to make yet rich in sentiment. The Dardenne brothers themselves say they do not aim to be beacons of social change through their films: "There are no political or sociological connotations, just love”. This is how I hope future filmmakers of this ilk treat their subjects; with a kindness and compassion that affects viewers and provokes a desire for change.