A boy, working at a garage, does a favour for an elderly woman, and steals her wallet. A young woman discovers she’s going to lose her factory job and physically assaults her employer in protest. In both cases the characters are followed by the camera as though in hot pursuit—the word “dogged” always comes to mind. The camera is handheld but there’s no phony, pseudo-documentary shakiness. The décors and mise en scène are unadorned as can be, the close-ups often bracingly tight and off-kilter. Yet there is a sense of masterful control to how every moment unfolds, and the result is moment-to-moment riveting. The characters always have tasks, and the stakes are high.
The boy, Igor (Jérémie Renier), has been pulled out of school to work at the garage, but his father (Olivier Gourmet) winds up pulling him out of the garage too, so that he can focus his energies on assisting him with the maintenance of illegal migrant workers, one of whom falls prey to an accident and before perishing asks Igor to make him a promise, one which breaks through the boy’s preternatural cynicism. The girl, Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne), lives with her alcoholic mother in a trailer and is desperate to improve her situation, to have a normal life, above all, a job, something she seeks with a tremendous fierceness. Her energy seems uncontainable: in a single breathless sequence, we see her confront her mother’s lover, steal the bottle he’s brought along with him, smash the bottle, get chased by the boyfriend through the trailer park, then spot a guy on a dirt bike, tackle him to the ground and start to wrestle. It’s almost an action movie.
But let me clarify: the boy and the girl are in two different movies, the first being La promesse, the second Rosetta. But these films are connected by a strict yet liberating formal, narrative and, yes, moral rigour of the highest order. These films, the first made in 1996, the second in 1999, both new on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, represent a genuine revelation, not only for Belgium’s fraternal filmmaking collaborators Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who had made documentaries before producing two disappointing fiction films and needed to find a new, essentially sui generis way of working, but for cinema itself: they launched a body of work both radical and humble, austere and galvanizing. Each movie begins in media res, offers no exposition, no score, nothing beyond the diegetic; each demonstrates relationships only through action, and follows its protagonist with a rough and tumble loyalty that ultimately feels like the closest thing to true, deeper love that the movies can give us. The plights of Igor and of Rosetta are indeed dire, but the last thing these films want is to wallow in pity, and the stunning lead performances do nothing to ingratiate themselves. They crackle, they plunge, they examine—they move (in both senses of the word). The Dardennes won the Palme d’Or for Rosetta and would get another for L’enfant in 2005. Perhaps they’ll win another, because, since La promesse, theirs is also one of the most consistent bodies of work in cinema, and even if you were to peg them as having a formula, the work remains fresh because there is something in that formula that cannot help but come alive every time out: a pure, durable curiosity and belief in the power and the will of the underdog.