La Promesse (1996)

When early film theorist André Bazin postulating a theory of “objective reality” whereby the continuity of shots and breath of the image became the pinnacle of cinema, he praised such names as Orson Welles, Jean Renoir and Howard Hawks as exemplars of this filmmaking style. And while luminaries of cinema, some of the all-time greats, has cinema ever been as real as in the hands of Jean Pierre and Luc Dardennes?

La Promesse is a film so simple, so elegant, so invisible that it feels effortless, as if cinema itself captured such images. Of course, it’s with particular care that the Dardenne brothers craft each moment. A camera in just the right spot allows a simple turn to move from capturing someone walking down the alley behind an apartment complex to another person walking in through the doorway. It’s a throwaway shot, another director might simply cut, but the Dardennes linger for a moment, letting the camera soak in the fullness of this nonevent for just a moment in the name of naturalism.

And if ever the cinema of any, in this case, directors was natural, it is the cinema of the Dardennes. There’s no tense score, no perfectly framed shot to accentuate or intensify a moment. The camera floats through a moment, just happens to be there as something happens, it might pan down as an object of interest passes by, or simply ascribe no particular importance between one moment and the next.

Likewise, the pacing of the film is composed of such a simple, economical array of moments, some not so much scenes as glimpse of scenes, or a single scene made up of several moments that just happen to coincide. La Promesse never feels like a movie, never feels like it’s disseminating information specifically for a plot, it just so happens that a plot emerges amid the lives of its characters.

Igor (Jérémie Renier), the film’s protagonist, is a young boy caught up in the life of his “father,” Roger (Olivier Gourmet), a man who houses illegal immigrants and has them work for him. Igor also has an internship, but it falls by the wayside. In another film, this might be a waste of screen time, a subplot that goes nowhere, but in La Promesse, it’s a moment that says as much about its character as any moment, it just decides to enter at this point in time.

It conveys his lack of responsibility and commitment, his illegal behavior and the influence his “father” has on him. It’s a world in which illegal behavior is casual. There’s no glamorization, nor is their condemnation. The characters in this world are opportunistic, to be sure, but it’s in their nature. Nor can it be said that the lives they help out are is some ways made lesser by the profits of Roger.

Like most of the Dardennes films, La Promesse evolves into a film about a quest for redemption. It’s an atypical quest, one that crosses a number of boundaries, introduces an interesting culture and develops an unusual relationship. And it’s not as clear-cut or idealistic as such a quest might seem. Motivations are hazy and nebulous, the truth hard to get at. One does not find the moral dichotomy of fiction, but the ambiguity of life, where moral choices are hard to discern.

In praising La Promesse as cinematic truth, one runs the risk of romanticizing Bazin’s “objective reality,” to be blind to all faults and deny other forms of cinema. But to simply call La Promesse “naturalistic” is to throw it into the ranks of films that are desperately scrambling to pass themselves off as natural. La Promesse is a film of the real, the kind of film Bazin could only dream of when he penned his famous words.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing