In a warm ceremony on the last evening before a nightly curfew comes into force in France’s major cities, the Dardenne Brothers were awarded the Lumière Award for lifetime achievement at the Lumière Festival in Lyon.
The pair were given a standing ovation as they were welcomed to the stage, to the tune of fellow Belgian Jacques Brel’s “Valse à Mille Temps,” by festival director Thierry Frémaux and actress Emilie Dequenne (“Rosetta”). A host of celebrities attended the ceremony including Abel Ferrera, Stéphane Audiard, the grandson of Michel Audiard and San Sebastian Festival’s revelation Dea Kulumbegashvili, whose debut “Beginning” took four of the jury’s seven prizes including best film.
Earlier on Friday, the brothers had opened up about their career, with characteristic modesty and humor, at a masterclass in the city’s historic Théâtre des Célestins.
Before answering the questions put to them by Frémaux, they graciously gave way to a couple of representatives of a local collective, who spoke in the name the thousands of people whom the pandemic has pushed into poverty.
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While emotion left Jean-Pierre Dardenne speechless, his brother Luc said, “Few things have changed in the 20 years since we made “Rosetta” [their first Palme d’Or in 1999]. The coronavirus is not responsible for everything, and there are still so many inequalities in the world. They are right to fight.”
“Being excluded from the world of work, of production, of consumption, of the human community, creates a feeling of humiliation, of worthlessness, of not existing. That’s what ‘Rosetta’ was about and it’s still true today – that solitude, it’s a question of human dignity.”
“There’s a responsibility that comes with being a filmmaker,” Luc Dardenne added. “Of course we like it when people like our film, but it’s even better they can become Rosetta, share her distress, become her. If a film can make someone who is locked up inside their own pre-conceived notions become someone else, and if this feeling stays with them, that’s what we want to achieve.”
How do they achieve this?
“In many of our films, there’s this notion of belonging. Rosetta has no place in society, she doesn’t know where she belongs. So when directing, we try and find a place for her. We put the camera in ‘the wrong place’” Luc Dardenne explained. “So that the character isn’t obvious to the viewer. If you feel you’re losing the character, you’re more interested.”
The brothers said that a lot of the work is done well before the camera starts rolling, during the weeks of rehearsal that precede the shoot. Costumes and accessories play a huge part, and it was during rehearsals with Olivier Gourmet for “The Promise” (1996) that the idea of their trademark close-up tracking shot of the back of the character’s head emerged.
“We don’t want to write a story for someone who doesn’t know what tomorrow is made of. So with Rosetta, the camera is always behind her. If we think she’s going to turn left but she turns right, the camera has to be nimble and follow, a bit like a camera in a war-zone,” said Luc Dardenne. “It’s more of a documentary style in the sense that we are filming someone whom we don’t have control over. Even when it comes to the dialogues, we shoot as if we’re not familiar with them.”
Looking back at the start of their career and the transition from documentary filmmaking, the brothers welcome what they call the “salutary flop” of “Je pense à vous” (1995).
“We were self-conscious like anyone who is self-taught. We felt like a pair of elephants entering the china shop of cinema. But it’s good to be afraid, it gives you the energy that comes from hard work. It was a healthy failure,” said Jean-Pierre Dardenne.
Coming from the world of documentaries is what helped them craft their distinct, uncluttered style.
“Each person we filmed was unique, had their own story. In our films, we never want our character to just be the advocate of a cause. Each character is very distinct,” said Jean-Pierre Dardenne. “In all of our films, the question we ask ourselves is: How are we going to save our characters? Twenty years ago, it was Rosetta, and now it’s Ahmed (“Young Ahmed”, 2019).
“We thought, ‘My God, it’s terrible, we never thought that in our Western society a 15-year old boy could be turned into a religious fanatic who wants to kill the only person who helped him.’ Our goal wasn’t to find out how he became radicalized, but whether we would be able to save him. The answer was to put him before the fear of death. Like every child, he called for his mother.”
At a press conference on Saturday, Frémaux twice mentioned the prescience of the brothers’ work after a teacher was beheaded by an 18-year old man in a Paris suburb on Friday evening in what President Macron described as an “Islamist terrorist attack”.
Looking to the future, the brothers said work was underway on their next project and that, the pandemic allowing, they would start shooting next summer in the Liège suburbs where all their films are set.
Winning the Lumiére Award at the 12th Lumière Festival, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne follow in the footsteps of the likes of Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda and Francis Ford Coppola.