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A Cannes Winner from Belgian Brothers

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm John Ydstie. The movie L'Enfant, the Child, won the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It's finally opening in theaters in this country in the coming weeks. It's the work of two Belgian brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. They're critically acclaimed earlier work includes La Promesse and Rosetta. Like those, L'Enfant is about life in declining industrial society, and it's set in the Dardenne brothers' hometown. Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio reports.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ reporting: L'Enfant opens on Sonia, a teenager who's just had a baby. Frantically, she looks for the child's father, 20-year-old Bruno who really doesn't care to be found. They live in a world that's rotting. It's a fictional version of the town of Seraing in Belgium where the Dardenne brothers grew up. Seraing used to be an industrial powerhouse with a labor movement that Jean-Pierre Dardenne says could bring a government to its knees if it went on strike. But when the economy in the town changed, so did the people.

Mr. JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE (Co-Director, L'Enfant): (Through Translator) We witnessed the economic crisis of the 1970s, and slowly the steel mills closed down, and the social life began to decay. We saw fathers who went on the dole. We saw children who went to school and were taught jobs that they would never carry out because they were being trained for factory jobs and factories were closing. We saw drugs arrive, and we saw slowly and to a massive extent people becoming isolated, people becoming cut off from each other.

Mr. MOVSHOVITZ: It was this world that Jean-Pierre Dardenne and his brother Luc wanted to portray in their first documentaries in the late 1970s. But paradoxically, real life can be elusive for documentarians. If they get too close, their presence can alter the situation when their subjects become to aware of the camera. But Jean-Pierre Dardenne says that a fiction filmmaker, by manipulating story and characters from the start, may actually be able to get closer to reality.

Mr. J.P. DARDENNE: (Through Translator) We can get closer to our characters. We can push situations to further extremes that would be difficult in documentary, at least for us. At the same time, we like to maintain a sense of documentary in our film.

That's to say that the spectator has the sense of reality fighting back somehow alluding us in our films. We also like to give our spectators the feeling that the characters we're filming exist before arrive on set with our cameras and go on living after we've stopped filming them.

Mr. MOVSHOVITZ: Reality forces itself into virtually every shot in L'Enfant. Outdoor events take place alongside grubby streets clogged with the constant din of traffic. Windows are smudged, cramped indoor spaces squeeze the characters and force the camera uncomfortably close to their faces. Scenes are each made from a single shot, so when a new character enters, the camera may pan awkwardly like a head turning to see them. It's not the seamless Hollywood cut from one character to the next. Luc Dardenne.

Mr. LUC DARDENNE (Co-Director, L'Enfant): (Through Translator) It's important that the camera for us, for the position that we choose for the camera doesn't anticipate the action.

Mr. MOVSHOVITZ: Instead, the viewer gets the sense that the action is captured by the camera rather than staged for it. The Dardennes say they set up other obstacles. They shoot on locations. If a car passes, it becomes part of the scene. If a body falls outside the shot, the camera rushes to catch it. And the Dardenne brothers have made all of their films in the city of Seraing. It's the place they know best and where they see in miniature everything they want to show about life in general. In this way, the Dardennes have been compared to novelists William Faulkner, who's imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi represented for him the entire world.

Mr. L. DARDENNE: (Through Translator) At the same time, if you talk about the Faulkner, about the fact that he always returned and set his stories in the same tiny area, this county of Mississippi, in a setting that was both real and imaginary, and I think that for us as well, Seraing is partly imaginary and partly real. It's the town that represents, if you like, the town that we see that represents life after the cataclysm, after the catastrophe.

Mr. MOVSHOVITZ: Even though these characters are marginal, their stories depict the kind of mundane life that anyone can relate to, says Scott Fondus(ph), film editor of the L.A. Weekly.

Mr. SCOTT FONDUS (Film Editor, L.A. Weekly): The Dardennes are always dealing with very core themes like revenge and guilt and fathers and sons and complex family relationships that really go back to the sort of fundament of drama, to the Greek tragedies, to Shakespeare. There's that kind of elemental power, I think, to what the Dardennes are doing.

MOVSHOVITZ: That's high praise, Fondus is not alone. In addition to winning the top prize at Cannes, L'Enfant was a critical and audience favorite at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals. Fondus says that with their non-professional actors and tough shooting style, the Dardenne brothers have developed a highly sophisticated art.

Mr. FONDUS: It's really a very advanced way of dealing with character in that sense, with so many movies that are just constantly telling you how you should feel at every moment and there's a syrupy musical score thrown on top of everything, just to make sure you get the point, the Dardenne brothers' movies sort of make you work a little bit. You have to figure things out for yourself.

MOVSHOVITZ: The picture of characters struggling to survive in L'Enfant is crystal clear, but for the Dardenne brothers, the important question is, what does it mean? Jean-Pierre Dardenne says that when life is stripped down to its bones, the importance of every action can be seen.

Mr. J.P. DARDENNE: (Through Translator) People at the margins of society live in such a state of nakedness, of material nakedness that necessarily, their gestures take on a moral value, the moral repercussions of their acts are more readily visible. If, for example, you have four people and one glass of water and the people have to share that glass of water, then the question is: who's going to drink it and will they drink it all by themselves or will they share it with the others? So this state of nakedness, of having the material lives stripped to the bare minimum makes more obvious the moral choices they're facing.

MOVSHOVITZ: And how much water will L'Enfant get? It's competing with such big budget new movies as Inside Man, Basic Instinct 2 and Slither. But the Dardenne brothers have brought a different kind of glass to share with audiences. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howie Movshovitz