Belgian brothers win Palme d'Or for second time

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the film director brothers, won the coveted Palme D'Or for 'L'Enfant' - but how does their own upbringing shape their movies? By Helen McCormack
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They grew up in a world confined to the grit of a drab Belgian steel town that was rapidly having the industrial life sucked out of it. But rather than let it subsume them, the Dardenne brothers, then in their late teens, were moved to document it, working as labourers in the local nuclear plant to earn enough money to buy their first video cameras.

They grew up in a world confined to the grit of a drab Belgian steel town that was rapidly having the industrial life sucked out of it. But rather than let it subsume them, the Dardenne brothers, then in their late teens, were moved to document it, working as labourers in the local nuclear plant to earn enough money to buy their first video cameras.

What followed was an observational journey of over 25 years that has seldom taken them far, geographically at least, from their home town of Seraing, a suburb of Liège, in eastern Belgium. This weekend, it carried them to the luxurious setting of the south of France and to the summit of world cinema as the film directors picked up their second Palme d'Or in seven years for their latest work, L'Enfant.

Like the brothers' last prize-winner, Rosetta, L'Enfant is a hard-tack exploration of life on the outside looking in. While Rosetta was a surprise win, their latest film was tipped by many for the top prize and widely lauded - described by one critics as a "near masterpiece", by another as "completely faultless".

Accepting the award on Saturday, Jean-Pierre, 54, the older of the two brothers, said he found receiving the award a "strange" sensation. Together with Luc, 51, he took the opportunity to make a political statement in his acceptance speech, appealing for a French journalist, kidnapped in Iraq along with her driver in January, to be freed.

Their words, coupled with the preoccupation with social exclusion which runs through all their four feature films, might prompt the conclusion that they follow a political agenda. Certainly, their films have a powerful message about the plight of those frozen out from mainstream society; Rosetta is a bleak, eerie examination of the life of a teenage girl living on a campsite and struggling to survive, while L'Enfant homes in on the lives of a young couple living on the breadline in France. Rosetta's impact was such that it inspired the passing of a bill, Plan Rosetta, which aimed to protect the interests of young, low-paid workers in Belgium. But the brothers do not consider themselves political, and neither belongs to a political party. In the late 1970s, when they began making documentaries, they were motivated by a simple desire to help forge community ties in their home town.

"Everything comes from Seraing." Luc said in an interview after winning their first Palme d'Or.

"When we're writing, we immediately see the streets, the houses, the people, even if they don't exist any more because much of the town has disappeared. It's a sort of womb for us, we like to dive back into it when we're working on a character."

Sons of a factory draughtsman, the brothers do not claim working-class heritage. Luc has spent time as philosophy student, Jean-Pierre as an actor. But, they explain, filming the lives of those around them as they suffered the fallout from the decline of the steel industry and unemployment rose to 25 per cent, was a form of "direct action".

"We didn't think of ourselves as film-makers," they say. "We went to local housing estates, strikes, factories, trying to do political work, making interventions as film-makers."

The destructive forces of urban isolationism drove them to try to foster a sense of community. "We thought: people don't know each other, no one knows who's living next to them, so we'll make portraits of people and show them on Sundays in a garage or a café. We tried to form bonds between people."

After making a series of documentaries in the 1980s, they embarked on their first feature film, La Promesse. About a teenage boy whose father is a slum landlord, flagrantly exploiting illegal immigrants, it bought them to the attention of the cinema world after being shown at Cannes in 1996.

International recognition came in 1999 with the Palme d'Or for Rosetta, but more recognition has not fostered a more overt political streak to their work, according to Time Out's film editor, Geoff Andrew, who has interviewed the relatively elusive pair on several occasions, most recently before their win last week.

"Their films are political in the best sense of the word. In one way or another, they are dealing with the political realities in the world - unemployment, poverty, justice, injustice, they are very political, but just not party political. I can't see that changing,in their films at least."

Like any artistic collaboration between siblings, their partnership has sparked a fascination in the way the brothers work together, an expectation that they are locked into a secret, visionary world, which they only share with each other.

This image was endorsed when they described the way they worked, saying: "We are one person, four eyes."

"They are very close", says Mr Andrew. "It is very strange when you interview them. They take it in turns to answer the question, they don't chip in. There's no sense of them finishing each other's sentences.

"One gets the impression that either could answer the question and the answer would be the same."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, their pairing has led to parallels being drawn with the Coen brothers, among others. But, as with the Coens, the pervasive sense of mystique will not necessarily harm their cinematic careers, according to Nick James, the editor of film magazine Sight And Sound.

"They are hard to read," he says. "When you have brothers working together they can communicate in ways that are hard for others to understand. If you think of the Coen brothers, they have made a massive play of this all the time. The Dardenne brothers censor each other in order not to give too much away. They are charming and elusive, when they want to be."

The difficulty that now faces the brothers is where their journey will take them from here. The bulk, if not all, of their work has concentrated on the lives of those less fortunate, and in one small area. Whether they can continue to produce work of the quality of Rosetta, their third critically praised film, Le Fils (The Son), and L'Enfant while insisting on keeping themselves so geographically confined is already being called into question .

"Their problem will be that there is now a very high standard expected of them," says Mr James. "They cannot go on making gritty films about the Seraing without the critics getting bored. Their problem is that they are going to have to come up with something surprising."

But the brothers, who described themselves as "obstinate", show no signs of being tempted by the offerings of fame. They still live in Liège, where they have based their two companies - their feature outlet, Les Films du Fleuve, and Derives, their video workshop, which now produces documentaries by other film-makers.

'They are not interested in all that" says Mr James. "It seems to me that they are really like craftspeople, like carpenters. They love their work, and do their work. They are not known on the international glamour scene and you won't see them in Hollywood any time soon."

Official winners ...

The disturbing French film, Caché (Hidden), which portrays Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche as a middle-class couple who realise they are being filmed inside their home by a mystery camera, had been tipped to win Cannes' grandest prize. It lost the Palme D'Or but its Austrian director, Michael Haneke (below), won the best director award, and was praised for his exploration of personal and national guilt.

The US director Jim Jarmusch's film, Broken Flowers (top), one of the competition's most commercial films, won the runner-up prize, the Grand Prix.

Tommy Lee Jones was best actor for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, his feature-film directing debut in which he plays a Texas ranch-hand who forces his best friend's killer to rebury the body in Mexico. The film won the screenplay award for its writer, Guillermo Arriaga.

Israel's Hanna Laslo won the best actress award for her performance in Free Zone, a Middle Eastern road movie also starring Natalie Portman.

The Chinese film, Shanghai Dreams, won the Jury Prize. It is a love story set among workers who obeyed the government's call to relocate to remote factories in the Sixties.

The award for best film by a first-time director was shared by the American Miranda July for Me, and You and Everyone We Know and the Sri Lankan Vimukthi Jayasundara, for The Forsaken Land. Best short film was Wayfarers by the Ukranian Igor Strembitskyy.

...and the others


Natalie Portman's dazzling new look (right)

was a highlight of the festival. Her entry to the premiere of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith drew gasps.


No British films were selected to compete for this year's Palme d'Or, though Martha Fiennes's Chromophobia brought a slice of English life to France.

The most talked-about British submission was Adam Curtis's BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares, about the war on terror. The Man Who Met Himself, by Ben Crowe, got critics talking, not least because it cost £400 to make.


Hanna Lasloreferred to the Middle East conflict in her speech. The 52-year-old said: "I want to share this prize with my mum, who is a Holocaust survivor. Also to the victims on the Arab and Palestinian side. It's time we sit and try to solve the problem."


Tommy Lee Jones brought a touch of Hollywood histrionics. "What surprised me was the quality of the audience when we watched the movie. You think at some point in your life you might see 3,000 people come together in a single joyful mind. It actually happened."


Dan Hartley, from London, won the Oddball Challenge for making a three-minute comedy, Serial Filmmakers, in the grounds of the festival in 24 hours.