The Dardennes were raised Roman Catholic but do not say they are Christian, though some of the films they’ve produced have overt Biblical symbolism. Interviewers often ask about the Christian themes in their work, and the brothers typically insist that they are simply telling stories about real life. They’re both big fans of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
At one point the Dardennes listed their 79 favorite films (yes, 79). Many of them were cinema elite classics from directors like Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson, but they also listed It’s A Wonderful Life. They included as well Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue—a series of 10 films about the Ten Commandments set in Soviet Poland. Mayward says the Dardennes’ style uniquely “addresses the head and the heart at the same time.”
The brothers still live in the town they grew up in, Seraing, Belgium, and they have filmed all their features in that postindustrial area—so the films have a feeling of a place and people that have been abandoned.
Many of the Dardenne films deal with the relationship between parents and children, and especially fathers and sons. Their films are often about children’s moral formation “when adults aren’t necessarily the models for being good,” said Mayward.
The Son of Joseph, or Le Fils de Joseph, is a French film they produced that also had U.S. distribution (see “French resistance,” Nov. 12, 2016). In this dry comedy full of Biblical imagery, a son who is searching for the father he never met is obsessed with a Baroque painting of the sacrifice of Isaac. When he finds his father and sees the man is a terrible person, he decides to enact a reverse Isaac sacrifice. Enter Joseph, an alternate father figure.
In Mayward’s favorite, The Kid with a Bike, which the Dardennes wrote and directed, an 11-year-old boy in a group foster home is desperately searching for his father, who wants no part in his life. You can feel the rejection and hurt on the boy’s skin, the way he ferociously turns away from every person who tries to help him. A hairdresser, who has no connection to the boy and no ostensible reason for loving him since he is such a prickly pear, takes him in and pours unmerited kindness and mercy on him at every point. The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
WHEN I SAY, ‘the Dardenne brothers,’ in Europe all the doors open,” said Belgian director Amélie van Elmbt, the director of The Elephant and the Butterfly. With the Dardennes producing, her feature launched onto the Top 10 lists from critics who were covering the festival. It’s a wonderful film on its own. The film now has U.S. distribution, a rarity for the nearly 100 films at the festival.
Van Elmbt was sitting on a sunny rooftop in Chinatown at the end of the Tribeca festival, recalling how she met the Dardennes. She is a young director, but she had worked with the Dardennes’ director of photography, Benoît Dervaux. At one point financing fell through for The Elephant and the Butterfly, and Dervaux suggested she ask the Dardennes to produce the film. They will like the story, he said, which is about an estranged father meeting his 5-year-old daughter for the first time.
Dervaux was right. She sent the Dardennes the script, and a few months later they responded: Of course they would finance the film! “Like it was completely normal,” laughed van Elmbt. “They have their taste, you know. I’m sure if I’m coming with a robot story, they won’t say yes,” she said. To that point, she’s now working with them on another film about adoption in Romania.