Sunday, November 30, 2008

"To enter human nature, that is what we like to do" - An interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are two of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers in contemporary cinema. The duo made their breakthrough in 1996 with La Promesse, and the realistic, starkly powerful style that would later win them such acclaim was already in evidence. Their tales of ordinary working-class Belgians forced to confront huge moral dilemmas have tackled themes of poverty, trafficking, love and revenge, but these themes are never the main issue, as their work is always focused on the complex and vivid characters at the centre of their stories. After La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son and L'Enfant, the Dardennes have now directed The Silence of Lorna, a gripping study of a young Albanian immigrant involved in a green card scam, and I met the two directors recently to discuss it. This discussion reveals a number of large and surprising plot developments (from the first question onwards), so I would recommend avoiding it until you've seen the film.

You often put us into straight the story with very little information, and we gradually learn who the characters are and what their situation is. When you are writing the film, do you imagine histories for your characters, more than we see in the finished product?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
No, when we begin we have the general structure of the story, but it takes a long time and we are always changing things. The one thing we knew in this script was that when Claudy died, the story has to carry on, but we didn't know where she was going or what would happen to her, will she be killed in the end or not? We had always thought that even if she was going to be killed, it would be while protecting her child because she believes in it. Of course, by the time we are filming we have already worked out those scenes, but when we are writing we have to talk a lot, it takes several months.

And when you have finished the screenplay, does that ever change during the filming process?
Luc Dardenne After we have finished the structure we make the script, scene by scene, several versions, and then we film. We always film chronologically, and the script normally doesn't change that much, but in Rosetta, for example, we did cancel a character. By filming in chronological order we feel what we can and cannot do, it's the same for the actors as well, and maybe we take out one line, and then we work on the editing. The script stays the same, and there might be different versions in terms of mise-en-scène, but in general, I don't know why, we always have around 15 minutes less than we had in the beginning. When you see the film, you can allows yourself to make more abrupt cuts and perhaps throw the audience by losing certain things, and that's something you can't get on the page where you feel obliged to explain a bit more. Already with La Promesse, there was a producer reading the script and saying, "It's too fast", and we took even more out because we felt we were explaining too much.

At the start of the film Lorna is ready to help somebody be murdered, what do you think changes her mind?

LD There are several things. There's the fact that she lives with him, and the simple fact that Claudy asks for her help, if he hadn't done that I don't think she would have gone towards him. From the moment she does go towards him, she is going against all of her coldness and the plan she had established in her head. Of course, human beings don't go in just one direction, she can reverse her steps as well, and she sees him in the hospital, and also asleep. What's interesting is that no one helps her to go in that direction, Sokol says "he's just a junkie" and Fabio doesn't give a damn. Maybe the fact that she's alone helps her to find that moral ground, sometimes you need that solitude to think about where you want to go.

A number of your films feature these characters who are alone and have to make these life-changing decisions. Why do you like to explore these situations in your films?

It would be really stupid to respond "because we're interested in that and we can't do anything else" [laughs]. We are interested in the different possibilities and attitudes that are within a human being, and how do you deal with evil, because that's what she's doing. Her life is determined by a number of conditions which she can't master, and how do you work that out? How do you do it in relation to the desire you have to better your life? It's not just a little chat in a coffee shop, it's a real alternative, "I can have a better life, but in order to have this better life I have to participate in a murder of someone". So that's what we're interested in, how do our characters deal with such a situation, and when they realise they're facing another human being, do they realise too late? That's what happened to Lorna.

LD She lacks courage, that's the silence.

And because of her lack of courage she is left with a feeling of guilt. Is the guilt the reason she invents this baby in her mind?
LD I think so, yes. I think the return of the ghost of Claudy in her belly is guilt. She tried to forget him, with the dance, and the fact that Fabio gives her the money that she refused previously, she takes it from him now like the earlier Lorna would have done, but in doing so she is also calling the spirit of Claudy because she makes herself even more guilty. In the scene afterwards her happiness is broken.

That scene of the happiness being broken took a lot of people in the cinema by surprise, and nobody knew what had happened for a while. When you made that decision, did you intend to throw people off in that way?

Originally our challenge as filmmakers was to not show his death. How do we make the audience feel the disappearance of Claudy without showing that he has been killed? It seemed to us more interesting to make him come back very gently through Lorna's gestures, through the objects she touches, before we know what has happened. At the same time she confirms what we have already guessed, the feelings she has for this guy. It's true at that point, like the characters, the spectators are a little bit lost by the fact that we have dug this hole in the middle of the film. When we made the decision not to show Claudy's death, we hadn't yet made the decision about the baby, that's something that came later when we made him disappear so abruptly.

How do you work with your actors on the set, do you rehearse a lot?

Well, take this particular film for example. In this situation we have worked with a lot of the actors before, and then there is Arta, who is a professional actress, and who has worked in theatre a lot as well. We rehearse with Arta, Jérémie and Fabio, for a month to a month and a half before shooting, sometimes we work with them together and sometimes just Arta alone. We work in the actual sets where we will shoot the film, and these rehearsals are more kneading the dough, really. It's not a round table discussion on the psychology of the characters, it's more the movement, the gestures, how they will get from A to B, just mixing these things and trying them out. It's like a football team, where you need to train and repeat certain situations, so by the time you get to the match you are at your most free and available. We need the actors to be free, open and available. In the case of Arta Dobroshi, it helped her to see how we work with Jérémie, and to see how he worked with our approach. It helped her approach it a different way, not from a psychological angle, although there is psychology there, it comes from the roots upwards until she embodies the character.

Arta is amazing in the film. When you first saw her did you know she was Lorna?

LD No, there were many other actors. We were looking for an actress who speaks Albanian, and if we hadn't found her we would have looked for another language that isn't spoken in Western Europe. Lorna could have been blonde, tall, brunette, short, with glasses... we didn't really have an idea, except we needed her to be mysterious, and we needed in her face a coldness but also a gentleness coming through. She can be cold, but then she has a smile that can make her close to you. In cinema innocent faces can hide other things.

You do show a lot of Lorna's face in this film, and throughout the film the camera is much more still than it has been in your earlier films.

It was necessary to watch and look at Lorna and not be present in her energy, it was important for the different plotlines to resonate, there needed to be space for the meetings of Lorna with Fabio and Claudy. It was also necessary to watch Lorna in the city among other people, and to see her dancing with Sokol next to other couples, so the camera was further away, just observing.

I noticed a few other differences in this film compared to your previous work. In the final scene we hear music, and I don't think you've ever used music in any of your films before. Why did you make this choice?

LD It is true that this is the first time we've used music in a film. I think we felt we couldn't leave the spectator alone, and at the same time it was also not leaving Lorna alone. It's not a music that would bring some general conciliation, but it's music that enables you to share her thoughts at this point, and I find there's something that redeems her to some extent. You think, yes, she has changed, she has accessed her humanity, one could say.

Although you said the ending is redeeming, do you think it's an optimistic ending? She is also losing her sanity a little, so what does the future hold for Lorna?

LD I think her "madness" is a proof of her humanity. She becomes totally naive, there is no other solution than to become the mother of this child. At the same time, what she has done has been done, and she can't deal with it in any other way than to lose her mind like this.

You also moved from Seraing, where you made all of your previous films, to Liege for this one...

It's just ten kilometres [laughs].

But does filming in a capital city give you a bigger canvas to work on?

Seraing is an industrial town which has lost a lot of its power, so I don't think somebody coming from a country like Albania would wish to go to a place like Seraing if they wanted to make their dreams into a reality. Liege is not a huge city like Paris or London, but it's a city where you can meet other people and have the opportunity to find a job. Also, being a city, it's alive at night, and we needed that nightlife. The three characters all live at night, and we needed the artificial lighting, from the car lights and taxis, and to see people going out for a drink after work, so we could have Lorna in the middle of all these people. We couldn't do that in Seraing.

You started making documentaries before making fiction films, and your films often deal with very topical issues like poverty, immigration and human trafficking. Do you think fiction is a better tool to explore these themes than documentary?

One must never want to generalise, for example there is a very beautiful film coming out in France which tells the history of peasants in France, so what we're saying here only applies to us. For us, fiction is a way of telling things we wouldn't be able to tell in a documentary, there are human possibilities that we can explore in drama, like in La Promesse when a father convinces his son that it is better to let this guy die. We also love working with actors, and we create these people that don't exist. They exist with us during eight weeks of shooting, it's fantastic, and when it's finished they're all dead [laughs]. Every member of the crew and the team has given life to the characters, and we like that. I think the main reason is that, apart from the fact that we were getting frustrated with documentaries, we just love working with actors, professional and non-professional, to create the existence of people.

LD To enter human nature, that is what we like to do.

What filmmakers have influenced you?

There are a lot, but it always changes. We want to remain humble and modest, so don't compare us to this filmmaker, but there is a Fritz Lang movie...I don't know the English title...about the assassination of Heydrich...

Oh, Hangmen Also Die.

That's it. It plays with the false and the real, and I think his mise-en-scène must have run through our minds. There are a lot of filmmakers I appreciate, earlier on we were mentioning Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, but I can't say that's a direct reference, and we like Bresson as well.

Ever since La Promesse, there has been a three-year gap between each of your films. Should we expect another Dardennes film in 2011?

I hope so. Each time we finish a film we say the next one will be quicker [laughs], and maybe it will next time, but you are correct, since La Promesse there has been a rhythm that has installed itself. We will see in three years if your bet is right or not.