If you’re new to the works of the Dardenne Brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, there may be a little explaining necessary before you dive into their films. It may be overstating things to say that they ushered in a new school of European cinema (and it may not be) but it’s not overstating things to say that over their last five films, they have won more major awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival than any filmmakers ever. Ever. Let that thought stew for a bit. In the mid-1970’s Jean-Pierre and Luc founded a production company and began to produce documentaries of their own and by other filmmakers, examining the social climate of modern Europe, the fallout of WWII, and other topics, often leaning toward looking at poverty and immigration with a strong social conscience. By the 1990’s, they had turned to narrative filmmaking, garnering great notice with 1996’s La Promesse, which paved the way for 1999’s Rosetta, which walked home with the Palme D’Or from Cannes – the first Belgian film ever to do so – for its portrayal of a young woman who works to try to escape the desperate poverty in which she and her alcoholic mother live (both films are slated for release by the Criterion Collection on 8/14).
The Dardennes have a gift for films about troubled young people that is at once sympathetic to the issues and choices facing them, but clear eyed about the fact that these are choices they make, not inevitabilities. What they also have that more cynical filmmakers lack is a sense of their films treading a line between disaster and hope – will whatever past history binds Olivier and Francis be overcome or will it consume them? More than the specific plot machinations, it’s that tension that makes the films go, and The Son, no less than their Palme D’or honored films Rosetta or The Child, makes the most of that tension.