REVIEW: “Art is for the Peasant”: The Diaries of Luc Dardenne

Courtesy of  Featherproof Books

Courtesy of Featherproof Books

Sometime in 2014, I was a depressive undergraduate in Cincinnati seeking any way to procrastinate. I lived a short walk away from the Esquire Theatre near the university — the only theatre in the city that shows independent, international, or art-house films. I’d never heard the name Dardenne before, but I knew Marion Cotillard and I found myself in a row by myself seeing a film called Two Days, One Night. 

Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker who is just returning from a medical leave after an implied suicide attempt. She finds that her coworkers have all opted to each receive a bonus in lieu of her employment at the factory. She has one weekend to convince her coworkers to vote to give up their bonuses in favor of her keeping her job the following Monday morning. I didn’t know I was about to see 95 minutes of some the most subtle progressions of dread and suspense pulled from simple, banal conversation.  The film ends with Sandra ultimately gaining a majority vote, only for her boss to swap her predicament with another employee — an African immigrant who sided with Sandra from the beginning. Sandra quits so her friend may keep his job and walks out of the factory along the sidewalk of the industrial park with only the sound of cars passing by. Her fate did not change, but she walks out of frame with a dignity she ‘d never known. She had hope. 

As the credits rolled my gut was churning. I noticed an older man sitting a few rows ahead of me exhaustively throw his arms up, annoyed. I still don’t know why.

I only recently reengaged with the Dardenne Brothers’ films after receiving a copy of On the Back of Our Images, the collected diaries of Luc Dardenne — one half of the Belgian film-duo with his older brother, Jean-Pierre.

Chicago small press darlings Featherproof Books gained the U.S. rights to translate Luc’s diaries and include three of the brothers’ early screenplays, translated for the first time in English by Featherproof’s own Sammi Skolmoski. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have been making films since the late 70’s, but it wasn’t until the release of 1996’s La Promesse (The Promise) that the auteurs gained international recognition, with multiple wins at Cannes to follow. The diaries collected in the book range from 1991 to 2005, nearly a decade before the writing of Two Days, One Night commences, but the treatment of the horrors of bureaucracy and discrete class violence is just as potent in the brothers’ early work. Originally published in the brothers’ native French by Editions du Seuil in 2005, Featherproof’s edition of Luc’s diaries was translated by Jeffery Zuckerman.

Skolmoski translated the screenplays as closely to the literal English equivalent of the Dardennes’ native French, citing the brothers’ “unique style, verbiage, and explorations of time and scene through expansions and contractions of language.” Reading that sentence sent me back to that dark theatre and the relentless back and forth of Sandra’s pleading against every fiber of her wanting to give up. To die. This same undulation reflects Luc’s diaries, which move in and out of his own struggles to contextualize he and his brother’s films against the pressures of industry aesthetics, social import, and his generally ubiquitous, all-consuming self-doubt. Truly, you don’t need to have seen a second of the Dardennes’ films for the dissonance to be cutting. The entries in the book serve as a monograph for the creative person in search of contextual grounding for their own work and life.

As inherently amorphous as a diary is, the entries collected in the book lead the reader through a kaleidoscope of creative confrontations, as Dardenne tempers his influences, engages his political moment against his art, and allows readers into the most intimate elements of the filmmaker’s life. And through this intimacy, the reader is left with a heightened respect for and consideration of Dardenne’s films, aware now of the deft eye that produced some of the most humane depictions of institutional class violence shown on screen.

The singular blurb on the front cover comes from Martin Scorsese, who describes the brothers as “truly spiritual artists.” I agree. Luc’s diaries often read like frantic grasping toward an elusive “pure image.” He often writes of his desire for his characters to be free of any ethical or moral imposition by the nexus of their very creation. It’s as if every moral fable rendered begins in the minutiae of a character’s world — the sound of traffic on a daily commute, the price of a bicycle, the promise of a relief more lasting than a cigarette break. Luc frequently inserts quotations from poets, philosophers, and artists alike as a means to coagulate the struggles of his characters. Invoking Rimbaud, who writes, “I who called myself angel or seer, exempt from all morality, I am returned to the soil, with a duty to seek and rough reality to embrace,” Luc asserts that “Art is for the peasant.” Of the protagonist from La Promesse, Dardenne writes, “I hope young Igor’s moral trajectory escapes from the screenplay.” Given this epiphany, Luc’s diaries — and Dardenne’s filmography at large — thread themselves into an unexpected cohesion, portraying the struggle to maintain a grasp of what the observer takes for granted within an image.

The Dardennes’ film depict life as it is: far more fluid than any attempt at its representation. And Luc’s diaries combine to show the very profession of filmmaking as a necessary act of futility; grasping at something unmoored through a means that is directly derived through aesthetic and political intention. The book ultimately frames the cohabitation of the act of keeping a diary with the ambition of he and his brother’s films: the continual need to grasp something sacred within the tyranny of everyday life. A futile act fueled by hope alone.

I think back to the man throwing his arms up in that dark theater and wonder if he was exhausted by the nihilism of Sanrda’s world. I wonder if he was exhausted by her refusal to be consumed by it.