La promesse [Blu-Ray]
Director : Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Screenplay : Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Jérémie Renier (Igor), Olivier Gourmet (Roger), Assita Ouedraogo (Assita), Frédéric Bodson (Garage Boss), Florian Delain (Riri), Hachemi Haddad (Nabil), Alain Holtgen (Le postier), Geneviève Joly-Provost (Geneviève), Rasmane Ouedraogo (Amidou)
An elderly woman pulls up to a service station with engine trouble. The 14-year-old attendant checks her engine, reconnects the fan, and then starts the car for her. The woman, pleased to have her car running properly again, offers to pay the attendant, who politely refuses. “You can’t work for nothing,” she insists as she begins looking for her wallet in front seat, but he continues to maintain that his service “was nothing.” When she can’t find her wallet, the attendant suggests that she must have dropped it in the parking lot while shopping and encourages her to go back to find it. He then slips back into the station, where we discover that his protestations against being paid had nothing to do with kindness and everything to do with the fact that he has stolen her wallet, which he promptly empties of cash and then buries in the dirt behind the building.
And so begins Luc and Jean-Pierre’s Dardenne’s La promesse, the film that put them on the international cinematic map (it was a hit at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and became a critical darling around the world). Beginning the film with the protagonist, Igor (Jérémie Renier), stealing from a kindly elderly woman is certainly a daring a move from a storytelling perspective, but it is also a crucial one because the film charts Igor’s moral awakening as he shifts from being complicit in the exploitation of others to recognizing their shared humanity and trying to make a difference in at least one person’s life. The Dardennes’ unadorned, stripped down cinematic style, which they consciously developed for this film after a miserable experience with their second feature, Je pense à vous (1992), is perfectly suited to their focus on the daily grind of the lower working classes, a topic they have explored again and again in all of their subsequent films.
Set, like virtually of their films, in the eastern Belgian industrial town of Seraing, the story in La promesse focuses on Igor, who works with his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) renting apartments and providing falsified papers to undocumented workers. It is a purely exploitative business enterprise, as Roger has no sympathy for the men and women who sneak into Belgium seeking a better life, but rather sees them as revenue and potential free labor for his renovation projects. The film is steeped in the kinds of small details involving pay-offs and petty exchanges and veiled threats that give it the rough verisimilitude associated with documentaries (not surprisingly, the Dardennes started their cinematic career making documentaries, their first being a government-commissioned film on working-class housing projects in the 1970s). Igor, who hides his youthfulness behind cigarettes and a toughened exterior, is loyal to his father, who mostly treats him like another hired hand, which he mistakes as affection. There are small moments of tenderness, but we get the sense that Roger doesn’t really know how to love other people, only how to manage them. The film’s looming tragedy is that Igor is on a path to turn out exactly like his father, thus perpetuating a cruel cycle of manipulation and abuse.
The turning point for Igor is the accidental death of one of the undocumented workers and Roger’s insistence that they cover it up and hide the evidence from the man’s wife, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), who he had recently brought in from Burkina Faso along with their infant child. Roger is incapable of seeing the man’s death as anything other than a risk to his business, which is why he can’t fathom telling Assita the truth. Instead, he tries every means possible to convince her to simply leave the country, as if her absence will somehow negate his culpability in the loss of another human life. Igor goes along with his father’s cover-up for a while, but his conscience gnaws at him, raised by both the dying man’s request that he look after his wife and his own instinctive recognition that he is the only link between her and the truth. It is a testament to the film’s subtle powers that there is no “a-ha!” moment in which Igor realizes he should do the right thing, but rather a slow push-and-pull between his conscience and his devotion to his father, with the former slowly gaining ground on the latter. In his later actions we witness the emergence of his humanity from underneath the weight of his father’s influence; Igor, in short, becomes his own man.
La promesse marked a number of “firsts” for Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Not only was it the first of their films to incorporate the mélange of stylistics devices—handheld camerawork, actual locations, naturalistic acting, and a lack of nondiegetic sound, all directed toward conveying the textures of life at the lower end of the social ladder—but it was also the first of their films to feature Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet, both of whom would go on to play roles in virtually all of their subsequent films. Renier, who was only 14 years old at the time and had never starred in a film before, yet the Dardennes draw from him a captivating central performance that feels captured, rather than performed. Similarly, although Gourmet had only minimal film experience at the time (he had mostly been a stage actor), he provides a powerful screen presence that suggests a paradoxical mixture of the odious and the pathetic. The enormous, thick “welfare glasses” he wears makes his eyes look piggish and distorted, while also underscoring the fact that he is living and operating at the bottom of the social heap. While he exploits, he is also, in some sense, being exploited by those for whom he works. The social world the Dardennes reflect is harsh with mistreatment and cruelty, yet still redeemed by the always evident potential for human decency. La promesse is a film of hard truths, but also of great hope.
|La promesse Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|La promesse is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||August 14, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Making its high-definition debut, La promesse looks gorgeous in Criterion’s digitally restored 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, which was made from a 35mm blowup interpositive under the supervision of cinematographer Alain Marcoen (who has worked on all of the Dardennes’ subsequent films). Given that the transfer was taken from a blowup print, grain is somewhat exaggerated, but I imagine the intention was to replicate the theatrical viewing experience, rather than the original Super 16mm format on which the film was shot. The grain gives the image a textural richness and contributes to the film’s documentary-like verisimilitude. Colors looks natural and intentionally subdued, while contrast and detail are both superb. Interestingly, the original two-channel soundtrack was transferred from the original magnetic masters and then remixed into DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround. Despite the fact that there is no nondiegetic music, the mix is quite effective, as it uses the surround channels to emphasize the environment and some directionality (such as when Igor is riding his motorcycle), making us feel that much more immersed in the film’s world. The soundtrack was digitally restored and sounds clean and clear, with good dialogue reproduction.|
|The main supplements on this disc is an hour-long video interview of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne conducted by film critic Scott Foundas and separate video interviews with actors Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet. All of the interviews are incredibly insightful and informative, more than making up for the lack of an audio commentary. The interview with the Dardennes is particularly instructive, Foundras encourages them to talk at length about their filmmaking history prior to La promesse and how they developed their unique aesthetic approach while making the film.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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