Since the mid-1990s, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been the standard-bearers for French-language Belgian cinema. Born in Engis and raised in nearby Seraing (both located in the industrial Belgian province of Liège), the Dardennes started making documentaries in the 1970s, followed by a pair of narrative films they immediately disavowed. 1996’s La promesse was a completely fresh start. The Dardennes’ non-fiction work demonstrated a social consciousness that remained in effect once they found their narrative voice, and it’s amazing how fully realized this effort is, exhibiting many of the formal strategies and much of the narrative sensibility that would serve them well over the next decade and a half.
But at the time, La promesse seemed to come from nowhere. Set against the backdrop of Seraing itself–a factory-rich city whose working class has suffered as the steel industry flees the country–the film is mostly about a teenaged boy, Igor (Jérémie Renier), living with his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), who smuggles immigrants into the country and puts them to work illegally. Roger keeps them under his thumb by hiring them to rehabilitate the same shabby apartment building where he rents them rooms, then collecting the government stipends they’re due (according to the Dardennes, undocumented workers with a Belgian address were, at the time, eligible for Belgian welfare benefits). Igor is his loyal accomplice in all this workaday shadiness. That starts to change after one of the workers’ wives, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), arrives from Burkina Faso, infant in tow.
Igor takes a special interest in Assita, perhaps partly because she’s a slim, fetching addition to the stable of hard-luck cases who populate the building and he is a 14-year-old boy. More than sexy, though, she’s exotic, with a rich, brown complexion that together with her wary demeanor highlights how different she is from Igor, a pale, laid-back blonde. An accident on the job provides the film its title: Assita’s husband, Amidou, suffers a grievous injury and lives just long enough to ask that Igor look after his wife and son. Igor nods his assent. And so his rubbernecking interest in Assita’s welfare turns into a personal investment.
Roger, of course, has no such commitment. His response to the crisis is to hide Amidou’s body and start cooking up schemes to get rid of the loose thread that Assita represents. As soon as Igor’s promise puts him at odds with his father, La promesse becomes a particular kind of coming-of-age story. It’s about that moment when children become cognizant of their own personhood, and when they discover that their own morals don’t line up, exactly, with those instilled in them by a too-fallible parent. There are more questions still: Is confession a moral responsibility? And when does the son bear the responsibility to turn against his father?
The worst rap I can think of against La promesse is that this tale is a bit rote in its particulars. Amidou’s accident–he falls from a scaffold as local authorities show up unannounced and Roger and Igor scramble to keep their illicit workforce under wraps–is the stuff of formula filmmaking, as is his deathbed insistence that Igor protect the family he leaves behind. There’s also a line of dialogue in which Roger discovers that young Igor is still a virgin, followed by the inevitable scene where Igor sits uncomfortably in the presence of the prostitute his father has procured. What makes it all work is that, in the Dardennes’ hands, the story’s moral framework is powerful. When Roger buys his son a sexual surrogate, he doesn’t see the awkwardness inherent in the transaction or doesn’t value the possibility that Igor may prefer to lose it in the (no less awkward) company of a girl he loves, or thinks he loves, or at least thinks he has a chance with. Something is at stake here. Roger is trying to usher the boy into manhood, but his take on human relations is impatient and irretrievably corrupt. It’s a mantle that Igor will struggle to shrug off over the course of the film.
The results could, of course, have been catastrophically didactic. The Dardennes said later that the picture was originally scripted with an older, retired factory worker weighing in on how poorly Igor’s father treated his lodgers. Getting rid of that character was a good idea–it’s plenty clear that Igor’s soul is in jeopardy without a supporting lecture from some one-man Greek chorus lurking around the margins of the story. While La promesse may literally be about the promise Igor makes to Amidou, there’s a metaphorical one, too: the promise we make to teach our children. Igor is a motherless child, and I got the sense that the Dardennes were distressed at the notion of a sensitive boy with so much potential being raised in an environment that’s long fouled by a poisonous aura of macho self-reliance. Though I instinctively resist attempts to code parenting skills and responsibilities by gender, I’m inclined to allow the point.
In the years to come, the Dardennes would maintain their focus on the hard decisions faced by poor people forced into bad situations by social circumstances mixed–often–with their own lousy decisions or personal shortcomings. Critics typically trace their work to Rossellini and Italian neorealism, and for good reason: Just as neorealist films took as their subject of study the special conditions on the streets of Italy in the years following the Second World War, the Dardennes have plenty to look at in their own environs. La promesse documents the underbelly of the global economy and could be read in part as a parable of French colonialism in Burkina Faso, where the population was redirected to serve as cheap labour in the plantations and factories of Côte d’Ivoire. In a more immediate sense, it’s an exposé of the ways the lower class find to exploit the even-lower class among them, and of the obstinance of racism and xenophobia on the continent. At one point, a biker goes out of his way to piss on Assita’s head. She takes it in stride, which somehow makes the attack that much more dispiriting, although it’s instructive to Igor on the subject of pride, resilience, and human dignity.
In La promesse, the Dardennes had already found a way to help facilitate audience identification with their protagonists. Working with a general restriction against using too much gear on set (e.g., laying down track for dollies, spending time on elaborate lighting arrangements), they shot quickly using a 16mm camera, which is smaller and generally more manoeuvrable than a 35mm one, allowing them to keep the camera in close. In fact, it is generally so close to Igor that several scenes feature the back of his head, with movie-watchers looking past him as he walks from room to room. It’s a compelling tactic that lends a propulsive, forward-moving feeling to what otherwise could be fairly staid material. It helps establish some of the geography of places in the Dardennes’ movies, and it gives a more lived-in feeling to locations like this film’s apartment block. Yet what’s crucial is that proximity encourages audience identification with the Dardennes’ characters, ensuring that viewers really do join them on their journeys.
Religion is never explicitly invoked (although you might say a scene where Assita looks for answers in a pile of chicken entrails suggests the distance between European Christianity and traditional African culture), but sin and redemption are clearly on the table. Igor invests both time and money in an effort to put things right and eventually gives himself up completely, rejecting his father in what may be the clearest and most resonant moral choice of his lifetime. For Igor, La promesse is a triumph. The boy, educated in the precepts of meanness and chicanery, has learned compassion, and his life will almost certainly be richer for it. The woman, alone, bereft, and bearing a son of her own, has a less hopeful future. We can’t know how she feels, but we can at least begin to imagine her suffering, not to mention the feeling that her boy companion, a proletarian by any measure yet a child of privilege compared to her, is little more than an avatar of her aloneness. It’s something Igor can never atone for. That’s La promesse in a nutshell–a simultaneous inspiration and rebuke, believing in the power of individuals to do the right thing but never dumb enough to argue that its own soul-saving denouement has mitigated anyone else’s unhappy endings.
Criterion has released La promesse on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously, and while I’m sure the DVD is a high-quality encode of the new master (scanned from a 35mm interpositive), the Blu-ray is quite handsome, and argues strenuously against the somewhat widely-held notion that low-budget independent films don’t benefit from the HD treatment as much as blockbusters do. La promesse was actually shot on Super 16 and blown up to 35mm, and in terms of transferring the breadth of visual information in the frame–not just picture detail, but the texture of the film grain–the Blu-ray shines. I don’t know the status of the Dardennes’ camera negatives, so I don’t know if it would have been possible for Criterion to begin at the original negative rather than with an IP, but that might have been nice (and would have no doubt reduced the grain). Still, the image is exceptionally film-like, with saturated colours and strong contrast and delineation, from the shadows up to the highlights. Movies shot in a naturalistic style similar to that employed by the Dardennes can look drab and underlit on DVD, where the texture of the filmed image is necessarily smoothed out by the lower resolution and colours are too often dialled in carelessly, resulting in a flat, unappealing quality. None of those objections apply here: the presentation is bold and solid. The transfer was encoded in AVC/H.264 format with an average bit rate of 39.9 Mbps–plenty of data to deal with that twinkling layer of grain–and pillarboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.67:1.
The DTS-HD MA track (French-language only) represents a 24-bit remaster and a new mix that maps the original four-channel magnetic masters to the 5.1 soundfield. In theory, this should allow a superior rendition of the theatrical soundmix, which was matrixed to two-channel Dolby Stereo. And the disc does sound really, really good, despite a paucity of directional information. A wee bit of the movie’s ambience may be spread into the surround channels at some point, though it’s not enough that I noticed on a regular viewing.
Extras are at the minimum level we expect from Criterion releases of films by contemporary (i.e., living) directors, if reasonably informative. The centrepiece is a lengthy (one full hour) video segment of critic Scott Foundas interviewing the Dardennes in detail, from their Liège headquarters, about La promesse. They discuss the process through which the picture was conceived (it was inspired by a newspaper article they read about the arrest of some Burkina Faso emigrants who were promised passage to Italy but waylaid and put to work upon their arrival in Belgium) and help define the “Dardennes style” of its execution. It’s easy to watch, largely because the Dardennes seem like quite affable hosts, and Foundas is a fine interviewer; but when I’m confronted with talking-head pieces of this length, I often find myself longing for the much-maligned audio commentary, which allows me to soak up the same info while immersed once again in the images of a film.
More manageable is a 19-minute segment that intersperses recently-recorded interviews with Renier and Gourmet with illustrative clips from La promesse. The duo share some tidbits about the Dardennes’ working methods, including their unconventional approach to auditions, and intelligently and modestly discuss the nature of their performances. Gourmet muses on how upbringing, life experiences, and surroundings etch themselves into the lines of a person’s face and body. He goes on to suggest that an actor who successfully conjures a rich life story for the character will find his own body taking on characteristics of that imagined life. Renier, for his part, describes acting for the Dardennes as a very–even purely–physical endeavour. He remembers shooting a scene from L’enfant in which either he or co-star Déborah François was eating an apple. One of them asked the Dardennes what they should be thinking as they bit into the fruit. The response came back: “Don’t think. Just eat it. We’ll take care of the rest.” Additionally, a French-language theatrical trailer, just over a minute in length, is encoded in HD but seems to have been upconverted from a PAL transfer. And that’s all, folks, but for a booklet with obligatory Kent Jones essay.