Is French the secret language of childhood?
Maybe that’s why the French-speaking world has produced so many cinematic classics about children, from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) and Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (1987) to Jacques Doillon’s heart-rending “Ponette” (1996) and this year’s French-Canadian Oscar nominee “Monsieur Lazhar.”
Much of the oeuvre of the Belgian filmmaker siblings Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne also belongs in this rarefied company. By depicting children as the turbulent, morally sentient beings they are, the Dardennes have fashioned a remarkable body of award-winning, highly naturalistic, child-centric movies, beginning with their international breakout hit “La Promesse” 16 years ago and extending to “The Kid With a Bike,” which won the Grand Prix award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and opened in L.A. Friday.
In their latest film’s beguilingly simple storyline, Cyril, an emotionally volatile boy on the cusp of adolescence, is abandoned by his father and effectively adopted by an empathetic hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile de France), acting out of reasons that are never fully disclosed.
As per their custom, the Dardennes cast an unknown, inexperienced performer, Thomas Doret, in the central role, and he brings a sense of spontaneity and believability to the part, minus the mannered cuteness that’s standard issue for kids in most Hollywood films. Cyril’s anger and anxiety are palpable, and the Dardennes, who also wrote the screenplay, don’t sugarcoat his raw outbursts or manipulate the audience with treacly musical cues.
“It was very important, although he was 13, that he had a certain maturity, but it was very important that the character be and appear as a child for the film,” Luc Dardenne, 58, said recently by phone with his 60-year-old brother. “We didn’t want an adolescent, we wanted a child. We did a casting call, and we culled from that 150 boys that we actually filmed. And he showed up on the first day, and we basically knew immediately that it was going to be him.”
Like several of the Dardennes’ previous underage characters, Cyril is struggling to master his feelings while coming to grips with the foibles of an adult world that plainly doesn’t have all the answers. In “La Promesse” (1996), a teenage boy played by Jérémie Renier (a Dardenne regular who plays the father in “Kid With a Bike”) becomes aware that his tenement-landlord dad is exploiting illegal immigrants. In “Rosetta” (1999), a young woman with an alcoholic mother strives desperately to improve her lot in life.
In “The Son” (2002), a woodworker’s young apprentice turns out to have been involved in the death of the woodworker’s son several years earlier. And in “The Child” (2005), a petty thief and young father (played by the grown-up Renier) sells his newborn infant for cash. If Steven Spielberg ever floated that plotline to his paymasters, he might never eat lunch in the commissary again.
Just as the brothers avoid giving audiences a pat Freudian explanation for their characters’ behavior, they also eschew easy moralizing. Yet their films are pervaded with an ethical sensitivity that’s rooted in the brothers’ upbringing in the industrial province of Liège, in Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking region.
Our parents “had a very keen sense of right and wrong,” said Jean-Pierre Dardenne. “We were raised in a very Catholic family, with all the morality that that suggests — some things that were good and some things that were not so good.”
Following in the French-language lineage of Balzac, Zola and Jean Renoir, the Dardennes extract extraordinary meaning from the details of ordinary life, enhanced with hand-held cameras and natural light. They traverse an emotional landscape similar to that of Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, taking an intimate, two-lane road far removed from the honking superhighway of mass entertainment.
The brothers, who maintain their own production company, began their filmmaking careers as documentarians, focusing on Belgium’s blue-collar classes. Their first fiction feature film, “Falsch,” adapted from a play, was a heavily stylized, neo-Brechtian, avant-garde political allegory.
But they quickly evolved into their mature realist style while evenly dividing the tasks of screenwriting and directing.
“In terms of writing the script, we talk a lot,” Luc Dardenne said, “and then I will sit down and write the dialogue or write the script, however constantly calling my brother to discuss the development of the script.
“And then after we’ve finished rehearsals and we actually start to do some takes, there will be one of us, sometimes — if the set allows it — one of us will be in front of the monitor while the other is with the camera. And we’ll alternate, we’ll switch off. But we do all of it together. It’s the same film from beginning to end. It’s not like one of us says, ‘I’m going to do a black film,’ and the other one says, ‘I want to do a white film,’ and then we sort of discuss it and we end up with a gray film. It’s either a black film or a white film from the get-go.”
Over the years, the brothers’ films have taken note of the changes wrought on Belgian identity by recent fresh waves of immigrants, not only in cosmopolitan big cities but in the gritty, post-industrial areas where their movies take place.
“A lot has changed in Belgian society because of immigration,” Luc Dardenne said. “On the one hand, teaching has changed in terms of languages, in terms of teaching French, because there are certain things that have had to be adjusted in order to handle the immigrants that are coming in that often speak very little French. And there’s also on the political level, our prime minister, for instance, is Italian. There are several other ministers that are of Moroccan origin.”
Although the brothers mentioned no plans for their next collaboration, they hope to keep their partnership going for some time. A few weeks ago, at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, Jean-Pierre and Luc ran into another pair of sibling auteurs, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the octogenarian Italians behind “Padre Padrone” and “The Night of the Shooting Stars.”
“We thought, ‘Hey, we have some years ahead of us!’” Luc Dardenne said. “‘We have a future!’”