Criterion Sunday 621: Rosetta (1999)

The opening of this film is iconic, and to a certain extent it’s what put the Dardenne brothers — already in their middle age and having had years of documentary and film experience behind them — on the map. Our title character just barges forward relentlessly, getting into a fight with her employer (who has just let her go at the end of a probation period), and in the first few minutes we don’t even see her face, just the arch of her shoulders, her propulsive forward movement, the determination that the back of her head implies, the anger at not having a job anymore. This defines the film and while it does slow down at moments, for meals, brief tender passages between people, for the most part it’s this forward momentum that carries it. Obviously it’s a style that the brothers were working on in their earlier film La Promesse but it comes to fruition here, in a film that delves into the lives of those living outside of established social safety nets, a hard-scrabble existence of living paycheque to paycheque, needing work to survive and doing anything they can to get it, a generation Rosetta exemplifies and had such a strong effect there was even a belief it led to a law protecting the minimum wage in Belgium (it didn’t, but it certainly must have galvanised opinion). It still holds up all these decades later, and the Dardenne brothers still have strong careers on the back of its impact, but it’s hard to get over the way this central character is introduced, the force with which that swing door is pushed as this film begins.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne; Cinematographer Alain Marcoen; Starring Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Olivier Gourmet, Anne Yernaux; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Friday 28 July 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Melbourne, Friday 3 March 2023).

Criterion Sunday 620: La Promesse (1996)

By all accounts, certainly by that of the filmmakers themselves, this is where it all began for the Dardenne Brothers. They’d made documentaries, even a couple of features, beforehand and had built up a bit of a career since the 1970s, but here is where they applied those techniques to fiction in a way that would become their trademark — a restless camera constantly following their protagonists, eschewing careful blocking and marks in favour of this documentary-like verisimilitude, using unknown actors (often non-professionals) and of course following often overlooked working class lives. So here we are introduced to Roger, played by the actor who would probably most closely be linked to the Dardennes, Olivier Gourmet, as an apparently nice boss, and his son Igor (Jérémie Renier, who would return in L’Enfant), though it soon becomes clear Roger is a dodgy operator, exploiting immigrants, using them for construction work, and then when one dies by accident, covering it up despite his widow (Assita Ouedraogo) and baby living in one of his properties. So this leads to the promise of the title, between the dying man Hamidou and Igor, an ethical dilemma of the nature that would also come to define the Dardennes’ filmmaking. It’s all beautifully shot and composed, with a breathless headlong rush into danger, as Igor defies his father and starts to make his own choices in life.


  • There’s a short piece with more recent interviews with both Gourmet and Renier reflecting on making the film, being there at the start of the Dardenne brothers’ journey into successful filmmaking.
  • There’s also a much longer interview with the brothers by an American film critic at their office, which really gets into the detail of their career and work on the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne; Cinematographer Alain Marcoen; Starring Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Melbourne, Sunday 26 February 2023.

Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, 2014)

It’s over 25 years now that the Dardenne brothers have been making feature films, longer still documentaries, and I think it’s become obvious now that these two filmmaking modes have blended together somewhat in their output. There’s a fastidious, almost real-time focus on the ways events unfold in people’s lives, of the cascading impact of sometimes small events on a wide circle of people within a community (a family, a company, a town). So in many respects this latest film of theirs won’t seem a surprise or a departure for those who’ve already immersed themselves in their fictions, but it’s every bit as well-crafted as the others and packs a resonant emotional charge in this time of downsized jobs and recession-era austerity.

At the film’s heart is Marion Cotillard as Sandra, hair pulled back and moving as intently and constantly as Rosetta did in their 1999 breakthrough film of that name. Sandra has been away from work for an unspecified period, battling depression, but now returns to find she no longer has a job: it’s been bartered away by her managers in exchange for a one-off bonus payment to the rest of the staff. It quickly becomes evident in conversation with one of her few friends left at the company, that in order to save her job she must contact each of these employees and ask them to vote against their bonuses. This, then, is the form the film takes: a series of encounters with her co-workers over a weekend, broken up by occasional time at home with her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and children.

It’s an unenviable position, not particularly helped by the apparent lack of any unionisation at her workplace. The manipulative games of her (mostly unseen) line manager Jean-Marc seem to thwart her at every turn, as every positive gain seems to be countered by some hidden aggression. But it’s a film which paints a small-town world of people struggling to make ends meet that manages to avoid demonising any of them, her manager (and a co-worker’s abusive husband) aside: they each have their reasons, and it’s difficult even for Sandra to always reason against them.

Still, it gives her squeezed-middle-class character an insight into the lives of her co-workers and us an idea of the character of her community. The struggle on which she is embarked also seems, in an odd way, to pull her through the vestiges of her depression, which understandably flares up from time to time. Cotillard is in fine form, as are the Dardennes, and there’s a compassion at the film’s heart that makes some of its repetitiveness (necessitated somewhat by its structure) easier to take, with her final decision both heartbreaking and yet poignantly filled with hope.

Two Days, One Night film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne; Cinematographer Alain Marcoen; Starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 14 September 2014.