I spent yesterday in Toronto with my friend Doug Cummings—of Film Journey and Masters Of Cinema—watching films, eating and drinking. (I wonder if there’s a documented link between cinephilia and food.) We saw three early video documentaries by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, each under an hour long. Considering that their last four films—La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002) and L’Enfant (2005)—are without exaggeration among the best world cinema produced in the last decade, we were eager to see these rarities. Thanks to Cinematheque Ontario, it was also the first time the films had been screened in subtitled form anywhere in North America.
How pleasantly unsurprising that the three films were all united by an insistent focus on human labor. When The Boat Of Léon M. Went Down The Meuse River For The First Time (1979) looks back to a general strike in the Dardennes' hometown of Seraing in Belgium in 1960. Léon is a worker who remembers how the strike came about—as a decision by the people against the wishes of the union—and shut down all the factories and local businesses in a spontaneously organized collective action. The film cross-cuts throughout between newsreel footage of the strike and the boat ploughing through the Meuse River—you can’t help but flash back to the scene of near-drowning in the same river in the Dardennes' latest, L’Enfant—the boat’s prow cutting through the calm waters and leaving turbulence in its wake. The parallels between the cross-cuts are hard to miss. Favorite parts: staccato montages of Léon working, making his boat—hammering nails, assembling panels—using his hands.
“On the screen of the cinematographic cave, films are projected endlessly,” says the voiceover in For The War To End, The Walls Should Have Crumbled (1980). There’s an unfamiliar self-reflexivity to this film, which begins, very self-consciously, three times. It’s about an underground newspaper, The Worker’s Voice, run by factory workers to provide a “truer” picture of their work because, as they say indisputably, “the eye of the mass-media camera opens too late.” Two delightful passages, one Dardennian, the other shockingly not: (1) Listing all the functions that a table serves: eating, reading the “Autodidactic Encyclopedia,” writing, playing chess, laying out documents, planning the strategy for a strike; (2) A startlingly humorous and playful montage of the worker’s battlefield, the factory, with blast furnace, fire and smoke, scored to industrial noises and videogame rat-a-tat-tat. At film’s end, the worker leaves home and gets into his car: “To the factory, to the war—the battle begins again.”
“The new revolution will be made on modulated frequencies,” begins R . . . No Longer Answers (1982), a freely impressionistic portrait of a radio service. (The "R" tellingly stands for "Reality.") It was the most overtly formal of the three documentaries, and I would not have been able to ID it as a Dardenne film if I didn’t know. Unconstrained by linearity, it moves between various parties—DJ’s, radio engineers, producers, listeners—mixing both interview and staged footage. There’s a dense political-montage element to the film that reminded me of Godard (Two Or Three Things I Know About Her or even the Dziga Vertov period). The film ends beautifully, in a silent radio recording booth. The screen turns from a photographic image into a minimal line drawing, outlining the equipment and furniture but without any people. A fittingly abstract coda to this abstractly-structured film. Color me surprised.
Illustration courtesy of magixl.com.