Criterion: La Promesse


A friend once told me that once you’ve seen a Dardennes film, you’ve seen them all. He didn’t mean this in a flattering sense, but as an argument against their stature as modern auteurs. I’ve seen enough of their work to see what he means. They clearly have found a comfortable formula, a distinctive style, and a certain amount of predictability. For instance, I correctly predicted what would happen in the final scene about midway through the movie. Just like with the Classical Hollywood theory of “regulated differences,” it is the texture, nuances, and execution that makes their work stand apart.

La Promesse is the first significant example of what would become their filmmaking and thematic style. It is filmed in documentary style, with hand-held cameras, no musical score, and in unflattering, dirty locations. They are more existential filmmakers, highlighting how people live in squalor and by what means they go about trying to survive.

It is set in the industrial Belgian town of Serainge. The lead characters are working class, trying to scrape together a living by exploiting the illegal immigrants into the country. The father, Roger, is the most crooked. He is a terrible father and borderline evil, although even he has enough nuance to keep him from being a completely flat character.

The lead character is his son Igor. He is introduced as a thief and a liar, just like his father, as he blatantly steals an elderly lady’s purse with her pension money, and then tries to help her retrace her steps to find it. He then lies to his boss about going to the restroom, takes the money, and hides the pocketbook by burying it in the backyard. This would foreshadow another illicit burial that would take place later in the film.

The child is the moral center, and for much of the film has few redeeming qualities. His father is responsible for many of his faults, as he is trying to mentor his son to become street smart, savvy, and unscrupulous – basically to become another version of himself. His father is overbearing, sometimes commanding and violent, and Igor rebels by going behind his father’s back and breaking his wishes. He is still not an upstanding citizen, but is a saint compared to his father.

Even though the father is dominant and Igor is subordinate to his whims, he often tries to act as if they are peers. They sing songs together. There is one scene where Roger tries to playfully tickle his son. In his own warped way, he loves his son and is trying to ensure that, like him, his son will be able to play the system to his advantage. He even gives him tattoos and talks to him about sex. Their relationship is not like the traditional father and son. Roger wants them to be more like working peers, yet he still maintains absolute control in the relationship.

The child’s lack of morality is challenged by a dying man’s last words, and his own guilt for doing something that cannot be rationalized as being right, regardless of what his dad says. He feels a kinship with the widow, who is also subordinate and being kept in the dark from the real world. He does not act ethically towards the widow. The opposite is mostly true as he continually lies to keep her from threatening his and his father’s situation, but he gradually takes an interest in their well being which is absolutely wrong according to the values of his father. His father considers immigrants as subhuman.

However predictable, I will not reveal the ending, but I will say that I think they pulled it off perfectly. This is a penetrating character study and I understand why it launched the careers of arguably the top European filmmakers today.

Film Rating: 8/10


Dardenes interview: For Criterion interviews, this was quite well done. A lot of the credit goes to Scott Foundas, who asks terrific questions. The Dardennes prove to be excellent interview subjects as they talk openly about their craft. They value their independence and vision in production above all else, and they say that everything revolves around what they want. This is a type of freedom that is seldom enjoyed by any producer/writer/director team, but it absolutely works.

There are numerous interesting tidbits from the interview, a couple of which I found notable. One is that they said they tend to do about 7-8 takes because the actors grow tired and more spontaneous, and their best work is often the later takes. Bresson felt the same way, although he would do even more takes and would completely break down his actors. The Dardennes stop short of using them as models, but they get the most out of their performance. The fact that they keep a solid stable of actors, unlike Bresson, shows that the actors respond well to their methods. Another interesting thing is that they reject a lot of actor ideas about their character. One in particular is that they don’t allow actors to choose their costumes because that puts them in a comfort zone.

Interviews with Actors: La Promesse was basically the major film debut for both Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet. They describe the process. The audition was more like a job interview, which they clearly passed. They became good friends on the set and Gourmet mentored Renier, which also came out in the Dardennes interview. This helped create the father and son bond as it was portrayed on the screen. They elaborated more on the process, that one scene was short per day and that they shoot chronologically, so that they are able to stick with the character. That makes the performance easier in a sense, but it can also make it evolve differently. It gives them some freedom, which they seem to appreciate.

Criterion Rating: 8.5

Posted on October 14, 2014, in Criterions, Film and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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