“Art Doesn’t Save the World or Save Anybody”: An Excerpt From Luc Dardenne’s Diaries

From the new Dardenne brothers book On the Back of Our Images, Vol. 1, get a glimpse into the mind of one half of the fraternal filmmaking duo.

The following excerpt is taken from On the Back of Our Images, Vol. 1: 1991 – 2005, which collects together Luc Dardenne’s diaries and Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s screenplays for The Son, The Child and Lorna’s Silence. To learn more about the book or to purchase it, visit the Featherproof Books website. – N.D.

August 26, 1995
I went to a multiplex to see one of the latest Columbia productions. During the screening people left to get more candy, popcorn, etc. The posture of a TV watcher transplanted into a movie theater. Art and modern life blur together. The divide disappears. Have to make a film for which viewers would forget to eat and drink.

August 27, 1995
Art doesn’t save the world or save anybody. It comes after. Far too late after. It comes after the murder has happened. It makes it possible to remember, but not to prevent it, or to not be committed again. Why go on, then? Why go on filming? Why? Why, if we’re sure that a work of art will never stay a murderer’s hand? Maybe because we’re not so sure.

I just saw a TV series. They talk, they talk. Unbelievable! Every gesture accompanied by words to explain it. The image doesn’t exist, it isn’t laden with words.

August 31, 1995
There’s the sphere and, like everyone, the artist is in the sphere and he fights like a maniac to extract some material and throw it outside. Often what he throws bounces off the walls of the sphere but sometimes it breaks through those walls.

September 22, 1995
There are cruel, evil people. It’s difficult to accept that, even draining. It takes tremendous effort. But it’s only after that effort that one has the feeling of being a human being. Many images (self-images we ask others to present to us) have to fall away for us to start becoming someone among the other someones.

September 23, 1995
Jean-Pierre found good scenery that will pull the film out of the Walloon imagery others in particular would like to encase us within. We’re trying to find a mixture, a vagueness commensurate with our era, in places, faces, bodies, clothes. Nothing is pure anymore, or belongs to a single specific heritage or is untouched by an encounter that has bastardized it. In this context, our era is a belle époque.

November 25, 1995
Why retell a story? To remember the drama and thereby take pleasure in escaping it. Every retold story is in the past tense, even the one that recounts what will happen in ten thousand years.

December 2, 1995
End of the second week of shooting La Promesse. The actors are very good. The camera doesn’t strike a pose. Maybe we’re in the process of discovering what we’ve long been trying to accomplish. We feel like we’re directing our first film. We’re coming to realize just how much the failure of Je pense à vous was a blessing. If not for that, we would never have experienced the loneliness that allowed us to ask the single question that contained all the others: Where to position the camera? Which is to say: What am I showing? Which is to say: What am I hiding? Hiding is clearly the most essential thing.

January 17, 1996
It’s 8:50. We’ve just wrapped the final shot of the final scene. Jean-Pierre and I are exhausted. The impression of having sought something and partly found it. I was lackluster at the end of the previous shoot. Here, it’s the opposite.

January 19, 1996
Emmanuel Levinas died during our shoot. The film owes much to our readings of his books. His interpretation of face-to-faces, of faces as the first conversations. Without these readings, would we have imagined the scenes with Roger and Igor in the repair shop, with Assita and Igor in the shop office and on the train station steps? The whole film can be seen as an attempt to finally come face-to-face.

During this shoot, Jean-Pierre and I really did function as a united pair. It was extraordinary. Just like our first documentaries.

March 2, 1996
“Every person is destroyed when we cease to see him; after which his next appearance is a new creation, different from that which immediately preceded it, if not from them all.”

Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove

March 3, 1996
Yesterday I got out of the hospital. I’m wearing a belt to support my back. My “vision” of Rosetta still hasn’t happened. I thought my stay in the hospital would prompt it, but nothing. Jean-Pierre is blocked in the same way.

April 10, 1996
In all the scenes where Igor/Assita are looking at each other, Igor is always the one to look away first. Igor can’t look at Assita’s gaze because there lies the pressure of the moral commandment he cannot follow. Except in the final scene.

April 14, 1996
La Promesse is selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Happy. Anxious, too.

April 16, 1996
Against so many speeches championing and marketing the interactive image: an ode to passivity.

To be passive to the point of resenting this call, of going with the flow, of getting lost, of not knowing where I am anymore, who I am anymore. Today everything affirms what we are: kings of our ass, our rights, our images … Dark kingdom where we bore ourselves to death, where the only passion that can reign is morbid jealousy, the wish to destroy whatever contests the boundaries of our kingdom. This time Snow White won’t survive. No way to find a hunter passive enough to forget the prospect of his own death in order to let the girl live.

April 18, 1996
Could you come do a colloquium about cinema? No, I replied, I’m too busy with our film. What could I have said during this colloquium if I hadn’t had this excuse not to come? Maybe the story of the mirror and the traveling merchant I read in one of Ernst Bloch’s books. In America, in the fifties, a traveling merchant, a white man, walks into a small hotel asking for a room for the night. There are no more rooms available. There’s just one room with two beds, one of which has been taken by a black man … For lack of any other solution, the traveling merchant accepts it and, accompanied by the bellhop, goes up to the room, sets down his bags, and enjoins the bellhop, who has to wake him up at five in the morning, to come knock on the door and even come shake him awake, should he not answer the door, at his bed by the window, of course, not the black man’s. Before going to sleep, the traveling merchant decides to go down to the bar where he meets several people while drinking then singing and dancing to jazz music. At some point, one of the revelers uses a charred champagne cork to do up the traveling salesman in blackface while he’s singing tipsily. Later that night, the drunken traveling salesman’s newly-made friends take him to his room and put him to bed. In the morning, woken up by the bellhop at five o’clock, he grabs his bags and runs to the train station where he has to catch his train. He just barely manages to get onboard, stows his bags, heads to the train bathrooms to shave and, when he sees his face in the mirror above the sink, he shrieks: “That idiot woke the nigger after all!”

A vertiginous moment in which, Ernst Bloch notes, the man was “so indefinitely near himself, yet his habitual whiteness fell from him.”

Maybe that’s the mirror of cinematic art. Allow the viewer to mistake himself or herself. To fail to recognize, to take himself or herself for someone else, to be someone else. To make out in the night of the film projection the other that is yourself and that the light of day obscured.

April 21, 1996
God is dead. We know this. We’re alone. We know this. There’s nothing after death. We know this. We know all that today. Who is this “we”? A sort of rumor that has spread across Europe over two centuries. Easy to be lulled by the rumor while being distracted by so many golden calves. Quite a different thing to slip into solitude and come into contact with this fact: I am alone and I am mortal, this is my condition, the condition of us all. Whoever risks this descent will come out of it freer. But will also be tormented by a question that refuses to be ignored: why can’t murder become acceptable again?

Featured image of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne by Dmitry Samarov.

Luc Dardenne | Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are giants in contemporary world cinema, steadfastly radical in both principle and approach since they began writing, producing and directing their films together in the 1970s. By winning the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival (the Palme d’Or) twice, they are in an elite club with only seven other directors. (Image by Dmitry Samarov.)