Saturday, 6 October 2012

LA PROMESSE - Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw - The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray and DVD

The Dardenne Brothers exploded onto the scene with the moving realist drama "La Promesse", providing a kind of quiet revolution within the art of cinema. Their style has inspired many, but they're ultimately several notches above the best of the best with their unique brand of humanist storytelling.

La Promesse (1996) *****
dir. Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Starring: Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouédraogo, Rasmane Ouédraogo

Review By Greg Klymkiw

To think of human behaviour in strictly genetic terms would completely ignore the notion of tabula rasa (a blank slate), wherein the primary influence upon mankind is not nature, but nurture. In La Promesse, the groundbreaking film by the Dardenne Brothers, we see nurture at work, but ultimately, it is nature which opens the door to redemption in this powerful story of a young man who allows that which resides within his very being to engage in a struggle with outside forces that seek to mould him into something he shouldn't be.

Igor (Jérémie Renier) is a young teen raised by Roger (Olivier Gourmet), a single Dad who has brought his son into a lucrative, though sleazy business. Igor is a smart kid and learns fast. He's an invaluable assistant to his Dad and takes to the job with a reasonable degree of zeal. That said, he picks and chooses when to be as zealous as his father.

At play, Roger seems like he's a pretty good Dad. He's got a good sense of humour and seems to love his son. At work - which sadly, is almost all the time, Roger is not unlike a monster. What shreds of humanity he might have ever had are stifled (if not completely eradicated) by a world that allows his innate sense of exploitation and just-plain-meanness to rise ever-so pervasively.

The style employed by the Dardenne Brothers allows us to feel, or at least hope, that this single father once had something resembling a soul. The directors do not shy away from the fact that it's a dirty, despicable world that provides certain "opportunities" to people like Roger. He clearly chose the wrong fork in the road to ply his talents rather than putting them to use in ways that could help the world. Alas, the business Roger has chosen to work in requires a thick enough skin to put self-preservation before any act of kindness. There's no difference, finally, between Roger and your standard variety corporate pig - save perhaps for attire and social standing. Both will never concede to any action that might result in chipping away at profit margins.

Though there are exceptions to the rule, they're extremely few and far between. At the end of the day, was there ever a time when a corporate lackey, whether a CEO, VP, Director, or a politician, whether a Mayor, Parliamentary Representative of the people or any Head of State, was anything more than a glorified version of gangsters, shysters and pimps?

For me, the eye of the Dardenne Brothers' camera almost allows for some kind of understanding of someone like Roger - a human being so low on the rung of scum-baggery that one wonders precisely what choices he really had (in direct contrast to the privilege of the more accepted scumbags in big business and politics).

"Almost", however is the key word here.

Igor, our prime vehicle into this tragic tale, is not only a good son but handles the duties his father expects of him with the sort of determination and acumen that's been drilled into him. On the surface, Igor looks to be a chip off the old block - a most worthy successor to Dad's nefarious enterprises. The worst thing Igor can do in the line of duty is display anything resembling a conscience.

When a moral sense rears its head, thrashings from Dad are sure to follow.

Right from the get-go, the Dardenne Brothers establish a superbly realized mise-en-scène. Our point of view is with Igor and the story unravels in such a way that we never know what's coming before he does. We're with him all the way. This allows us to always be with this character's inscrutable face and we experience his inner life through his actions. This, of course, is an extremely pure form of cinema - where action is the prime engine for the story and the ultimate manner in which it's told.

When the motherless Igor comes to observe the actions of Assita (Assita Ouédraogo), a beleagured illegal immigrant from Burkina Faso desperately searching for her missing husband, the observational style is truly heartbreaking. This 15-year-old boy who has never known, or has forgotten, the tender, nurturing touch of a mother, eventually eyes the actions of Assita with her baby.

It is ultimately the actions he witnesses (and those we witness from his perspective) that are the thing that inspire his true inner nature and reject the nurture of his father. It is also these maternal actions that I think are far more powerful persuaders than even his guilt over a horrendous action he's participated in with his father and a promise he's made much earlier to a dying man. They might be part of the equation, but the clincher is seeing what it's like for someone to provide love and care to a child and how, in turn, this affects the recipient of this tender nurturing.

Jérémie Renier's perfectly pitched performance blended with both the when and the how in which the Dardenne Brothers allow us to examine the face and actions of Igor are precisely what allow us to hope and/or intimate that he could, in fact, do the right thing. Most miraculous is that the screenplay is chock-full of conflicts for our central character to overcome, but that in the end, it is the inner moral conflicts that rise to the top - so extraordinarily and naturally that one realizes how damn difficult this must be to achieve and yet, how easily and fluidly these Dardenne guys make it seem. Their style is so original and consistent (while never feeling by rote) that one almost wishes every movie could be like this one (and their astounding work that followed).

That said, if every movie was like a Dardenne Brothers picture, we might, God Forbid (!!!) be salivating at the prospect of a new James Cameron, Garry Marshall or Christopher ("One Idea") Nolan movie.

Happily, we don't, we won't and we never will. At least not some of us, or as Col. Walter E. Kurtz says in Apocalypse Now, "That's my dream."

"La Promesse" is available in a brand new Director-Approved Special Edition Blu-Ray from the visionary Criterion Collection. It features a sumptuous restored high-def digital transfer that director of photography Alain Marcoen supervised, an interview between film critic Scott Foundas (whose manner of delivering a series of basic questions was a tad too precious for my tastes) and the directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (who provide lengthy, informative and frankly, inspiring responses). There's also an interview with actors Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet, a trailer, a brand new English subtitle translation and an essay by film critic Kent Jones. This one's a keeper. Run, do not walk to add this picture to your collection. In spite of seeing the picture many times before, I scoured this edition ravenously.