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DVD Watch

Two from the Dardenne brothers

By Marjorie Baumgarten, 3:15PM, Tue. Aug. 28, 2012

DVD Watch

The Belgian Dardenne brothers – Jean-Pierre and Luc – have ascended into the top ranks of international filmmakers in only the last 15 years. The duo's movies are low on flash (which, in the U.S. at least, may have limited their popularity beyond cinephile circles), but high on substance (which wins them fans in all corners of the world).

In the time frame of 12 years, the Dardennes have become the most awarded filmmakers in the history of the Cannes Film Festival, receiving two Palmes d'Or, a Grand Jury Prize, one award for Best Screenplay, and two for Best Actor. A Dardenne movie is a rigorous yet human-scaled drama that combines the observational elements of documentary filmmaking with a narrative film's emotional investment in characters and their welfare. The style is an outgrowth of the brothers' philosophical ideas and is immediately recognizable as theirs. It's an unadorned style – one that uses their own scripts and unknown actors, and shoots scenes sequentially (in the order in which they occur in the movie) to help foster an accumulated sense of veracity. Their characters come from the fringes of society: members of the working class and children left to their own devices.

La Promesse (1996) is the film that earned the Dardennes their first wide critical acclaim. The project was something of a new start for the brothers, who cut their teeth as urban documentarists before making a couple of narrative features, with which they were unsatisfied. So they rethought their working process and made La Promesse, which contains everything that has come to be known as the hallmarks of a Dardenne brothers' film, including the first appearances of Jérémie Renier and Oliver Gourmet, actors who would remain members of the Dardennes' recurring circle of players.

La Promesse is also a great starting point for any newcomer to the Dardennes. The movie tells the story of a teenage boy who, instead of going to school, works with his gruff father in the dispersal of illegal immigrants for underground employment. The climax of the movie occurs when the son is forced by circumstances to choose between loyalty to his father or to his growing, inner sense of morality. Although La Promesse became the brothers' international breakthrough, many observers were nevertheless startled when their next film, 1999's Rosetta, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. This film, which is the only one of theirs that uses a female as the central character, is deceptively simple. Rosetta is a teenager who looks for work and takes care of her alcoholic mother instead of going to school. With handheld immediacy and minimal dialogue, the movie takes us inside the quandaries faced by this young girl on her own with few resources.

Criterion further burnishes its reputation as one of the top DVD producers with the release La Promesse and Rosetta ($39.95 Blu-ray, $29.95 DVD, each). Each film has been beautifully restored and transferred under the supervision of the Dardennes’ director of photography Alain Marcoen. Included on each disc are separate, hourlong interviews with the brothers, conducted by former film critic Scott Foundas. Recorded solely for the purpose of inclusion on these DVD releases, the interviews are wide-ranging and informative, and make use of clips and images from the films to illustrate points. Although these interviews might be best left for viewing after watching the features, the booklets that come with the discs contain essays by film author Kent Jones which offer terrific summaries of where each film fits within the Dardennes' oeuvre, as well as overall reflections on their careers. Along with the films, these essays provide great entry points in the the world of the Dardennes.

Also Out Now:

Les Vampires (Kino Classics, $39.95 Blu-ray, $29.95 DVD): Louis Feuillade's ten-part silent serial, a landmark of early cinema, is rereleased on two discs with two comic shorts included.

With fall TV premieres launching soon, now's a good time to get caught up to speed. Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Second Season (HBO Studios, Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy, $79.98) and Homeland: The Complete First Season (Showtime, Blu-ray $69.98) both hit shelves today.

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