Getting real on the screen


Belgian filmmaker duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1999 with “Rosetta,” and they went on to win it again this year with “L’Enfant” (international title: “The Child”).

The brothers studied drama in Liege before moving to Brussels and their first work (a documentary about the Belgian working class) was financed with paychecks from double shifts at a nuclear power plant.

Their last three works, especially, deal with teenagers struggling with poverty in a starkly poetic way and have caused them to be compared to Ken Loach. “We are interested in the lives of children and people who exist on the fringe of this capitalist/consumerist society,” explains Jean-Pierre, the elder of the duo. “What happens to them, what do they think about, what kind of future do they have to look forward to? We didn’t want to lie about it because when one is very young and poor, it’s extremely difficult to have hope.’

“L’Enfant” is not just about survival but the process by which a 20-year-old, unemployed petty thief named Bruno becomes a father and an adult.

“We started off with the idea of a boy who has no emotions. We simply wanted to chart what happens to him when circumstances — in this case, a new-born baby — forces him to muster some kind of feeling for another human being,” says younger brother Luc.

The Dardenne brothers were in Tokyo to promote the film and here’s what they said about children, poverty and their particular methods of filmmaking.

“The Child” has the look and feel of a documentary, more so than your last two works.

We are always interested in the living person in front of the camera.

The person should not seem doll-like, or lifeless, and we hope always to capture the living, breathing human form. This is why we value the spontaneity and freshness of the actors’ performances.

You always use first-time actors/actresses in very important roles, in this case it’s Deborah Francois as Sonia.

In making a film, when one uses only professional actors they tend to cover, or obscure the story like a curtain obscures a window. So we tend to look for fresh new faces with every film and we also try to look for them in our home city of Liege. This is not to say we use only amateurs. We like to mix and blend the seasoned pros with first-timers because this sparks an interesting chemistry in the performances.

In this case Jeremie Renier as Bruno was a professional and Deborah had zero experience. By working with her, Jeremie could revive a kind of innocence he had when he was first starting out and Deborah could learn the trade through Bruno. The dynamics worked very well.

How do you work with the actors, specifically?

We don’t give any acting directions. We go through the rehearsals with them, but when they start to act or show too much technique, we ask them to tone it down. For us, it’s enough that the actors exist, that they’re there, in front of the camera.”

Bruno makes the choice of selling his baby for cash. But he’s not brutal, or mean about it.

No, he’s not. Bruno and Sonia are outside the societal circle that revolves around production and consumption. They just can’t join in this circle and so the only logic that Bruno has ever nurtured within himself is the logic of survival.

There’s no violence or brutality behind his decision to sell his baby. He needs the money and so it’s as easy as that.

At the same time, we wanted to point out that for a man to become a father he needs to separate himself from the baby for awhile. This could happen in any number of ways and, obviously, selling the baby to strangers is the most extreme example. Anyone could become a father, biologically. But mentally and spiritually, that’s something else.”