Much has been made about Amazon having an unprecedented five pics across the Cannes Official Selection, but so do Belgian filmmakers the Dardennes brothers. A key difference being that the venerable brothers, who direct and produce movies together, have also helmed one of the five titles bowing in Cannes under their Les Films du Fleuve label. They are among a handful of auteurs who have won the Palme d’Or twice.
In this, a banner year, Les Films du Fleuve produced the Dardennes’ new drama, “The Unknown Girl,” and co-produced Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” and Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” all in competition, plus Italian noir “Pericles the Black Man” and French costumer “The Dancer,” both in Un Certain Regard.
Their Cannes clout stands as testimony to the force of cross-border European production as a means to counter Amazon and Netflix.
It also means “The Unknown Girl” will be competing against its own siblings. “It’s the irony of the situation!” laugh Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes.
That situation is partly due to Belgium’s tax shelter that allows investors and companies to invest part of their tax money into movies, and can allow the financing of up to 40%-45% of a production’s Belgian-eligible qualified spend.
“It makes is easy for us to do co-productions, which for us are all about friendships,” says Jean-Pierre.
Mungiu’s “Graduation” and Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” for example, were co-produced with Pascal Caucheteux, with whom they first worked with when he asked them to team up on Loach’s “Looking for Eric,” starring French soccer player-turned-actor Eric Cantona. “We met because Pascal, my brother and I all love soccer,” says Luc, adding the relationahip continued with him and Loach.
“In Europe, co-productions are all done through a network. Once you’ve worked with someone and the relationship is good, and they are honest, then you keep working with them,” Luc notes.
Of course the Dardennes don’t just co-produce anything one of their friends sends them and they are also not shy about critiquing projects.
“If we don’t like the scripts, then we tell the producer: ‘I don’t like this! I have a problem with that!’ We are not just there to co-produce: we also critique. We tell them what we think, even in the editing stage,” they say.
Most directors are happy to get their creative input.
“Our film is very ambivalent; it’s an auteur genre movie, which is tough and risky,” says Italian multi-hyphenate Riccardo Scamarcio, who produced and stars in “Pericles the Black Man,” playing the title role of a failed porn actor working as a very particular type of Mafia bully in Liege, Belgium, who disengages from the shackles of the mob after meeting a woman. “They immediately identified that risk. The whole conversation centered around the tone of the film.”
The film, directed by Stefano Mordini (“Steel”) is based on the eponymous Italo cult novel set in Southern Italy by Giuseppe Ferrandino. The narrative was transposed to Liege, which has a large Italian community, in order to tap into the Belgian tax shelter coin.
At first Scamarcio was a bit hesitant to propose “Pericles” to the Dardennes because he was afraid it may not be in sync with their signature naturalistic style. “The Mordini movie is very different from our universe and so is ‘The Dancer.’ We really don’t try to co-produce films that are in any way similar to our own,” they say.
“The Dancer,” which is the feature film debut of French music and fashion video director Stephanie Di Giusto, is a musical costumer set in turn-of-the-20th century Paris focusing on a rivalry between dancers Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan. The Dardennes are co-producers with French producer Alain Attal.
“We read the scripts. And that’s when we say: ‘We like that!’ Even if it’s very different from what we do.” They certainly don’t say “Oh, that’s a good Cannes movie!,” they joke.
As for their own pic, “The Unknown Girl,” which marks the seventh time they’ve had a film in Cannes, they don’t want to say much before it screens. It toplines French star Adele Haenel (who won Cesars for “Love at First Sight” and “Suzanne”) as Jenny, a young doctor who feels guilty about not having opened the door of her office to a young woman who is later found dead nearby. She decides to investigate who the young woman was and why she died, while the police also investigate. “It’s not a genre movie, but there is a detective film aspect to it,” they say.
The Dardennes may not be big self-promoters, but, as Scamarcio points out, “The fact that they have five movies in Cannes must mean something: if they are interested in a project, that gives it a special cachet.”