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La Promesse

La Promesse(1996)

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La promesse, the austere, urgent, uncompromising 1996 feature from brothers and filmmaking partners Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, was not their first feature, but it might have well have been. It introduced the Dardennes -- and their immediate, engaged approach to telling stories about people on margins -- to the world and it announced the arrival of a vital new filmmaking talent. It was their third narrative feature and it followed a career honing their skills and concerns in years of documentary filmmaking.

La promesse opens on young, blond, very boyish Jérémie Renier as Igor, a teenage kid ostensibly apprenticing as a mechanic in a gas station / garage. The apprenticeship excuses him from school but he's clearly more interested in scamming the customers (his initial act of benevolence turns out to be merely a distraction for a little purse snatching) and more committed to helping his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), when he calls. Roger's business is smuggling illegal aliens into Belgium, or rather taking care of the final leg of the business. He rents them rooms, sells them papers, and finds them jobs, taking his cut on every transaction. Igor is his collector, bookkeeper, and secretary, so to speak, and he's thoroughly at ease with their captive clients without ever getting personally attached.

That all changes when the young wife of Amidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), a middle-aged African from Burkino Faso paying off his debt by working (off the books) on Roger's home, arrives. Igor is fascinated and more than a little interested in the exotic, superstitious, thoroughly practical Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), a young mother with an infant who immediately goes about turning their hovel into a home. When Amidou suffers a fatal accident, Igor makes a promise to take care of his family, unaware of just how it will force him to defy everything his father stands for. It's not just attraction but it's also much more complicated than simple guilt over his participation in covering up the death (no need to draw attention to themselves by letting anyone find the corpse of an illegal alien). Forced to confront the inevitable morality of their business, he doesn't like what he sees once his eyes are opened to his complicity.

Like the filmmakers, our two leads, Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet, did not make their respective acting debuts in La promesse but they were virtually unknown in films and the Dardennes gave them their first leading roles. Along with Assita Ouedraogo, who plays the young immigrant wife and mother, they carry the drama in through the complications and contradictions of their characters and relationships and in the way they live in this world and respond to human need.

The Dardennes shoot on location with handheld cameras to engage more directly and immediately, yet never give in to the exaggerated "shaky-cam" that so many independent filmmakers still abuse to convince us of the "authenticity" of their images. They capture the scuffed, rough textures of their working class world and the people who inhabit it, and they have a gift for casting unglamorous faces and letting the complexity of the characters emerge from under these seemingly unexceptional surfaces. Our expectations of what these people -- or anyone, for that matter -- are capable of are undercut by their refusal to type them with familiar visual clues.

Gourmet, with his doughy, mole-like face and windowpane glasses distorting his blank, blinking eyes, looks more like the hapless comic relief in a Warner Bros. gangster picture than a small time human trafficker. He plays Roger as a man who really believes he's doing it all for his son and justifies a business only nominally better than human slavery by simply refusing to see them as humans. When one of them becomes inconvenient, he's not above lies and intimidation. As the filmmakers reveal the dimensions of Roger's industry, without commentary or judgment, they let us slowly absorb the ramifications of treating humans as commerce.

Assita Ouedraogo gives us a young woman still steeped on the superstitions of a tribal culture yet self-possessed and unwavering in her engagement with Roger and Igor. There's nothing subservient or shy about the way she confronts them about the truth of her husband's disappearance.

Most impressive is Renier, who was only 14 when he played the role. His youth comes through in every smile, furtive glance, and guilty shrug. He's pleasant and yet instinctively mercenary, clearly the influence of a father who treats every relationship as a commercial exchange, but he's also a kid who spends what little free time he has building a go-kart with his buddies. His defiance of his father is not some symbolic gesture but a life-changing decision, a seismic shift in a small, intimate movie.

Kent Jones, in an essay accompanying the Criterion release of La promesse, suggests that: "This may have been a 'second first film' in the tradition of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and David Fincher's Se7en...." I haven't seen any of their earlier work but based on comments made by the Dardennes, I understand that La promesse is the result of their concerted effort to take stock of the stories they told and how they told them, without commercial considerations. The result is something at once fresh and vital, distinctive yet refusing to draw attention to itself. The Dardennes use their cameras to really look at the people and their environments, to define an existence where every moment is poised on the precipice of sudden, dramatic change and decisions that will determine the morality with which these characters will live their lives.

Criterion presents two original interview featurettes, both recorded in 2012, for their release on both DVD and Blu-ray. American film critic Scott Foundas interviews Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne in their studio in Liège, Belgium, for an hour-long piece that focuses on La promesse, with a discussion of the films they made previously and how they made a conscious choice to strip down the filmmaking apparatus to make a feature film that gave them the sense of honesty and immediacy of their documentary filmmaking. Foundas speaks in English, the Dardennes in French (with subtitles).

Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet are interviewed separately (with no acknowledgement of the interviewer) in a shorter, 18-minute featurette, where they discuss their background and their work on La promesse and subsequent films by the Dardennes (also in French with English subtitles).

For more information about La Promesse, visit The Criterion Collection. To order La Promesse, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker