Portraits of the Sonata:
Desire and Transformation in Modern European Cinema
IN 1984, A MIDDLE-AGED MAN wearing headphones, sequestered away in the attic of an East German apartment building, sits before a typewriter. Around him are the trappings of his profession, the machines and gear that allow him to spy upon events transpiring in a particular flat below. The space is as gray and empty as the cavity of a bleached skull. The only endeavors are those of the man himself, and his separation from the equipment is at times unclear—his identity outside his task, even more so. He notes with clipped, technical prose what he hears, using a syntax algebraic in tone. People become glyphs in his transcription, shorthanded ciphers not for who they are, but for what they do: “Lazlo says X”; “CMS responds Y.”
And then the man hears music. It is a piano sonata, making its way from the strings and hammers, inside the bugs planted behind the wall, up through the wires and into the man’s headphones. The piece is being played by “Lazlo,” the code-named subject of the surveillance, a playwright who has drawn the suspicion of the secret police.
But the purpose of the music, of its being played at this particular moment, is not to subvert some ideology, nor to foster some revolutionary fervor, but to mourn the loss of a friend. It is the expression of a sorrow that beggars words, a pavane to a fellow artist whose blacklisting by the communist government has led to despair and suicide. And in its phrasing, the song works its way through the red guards and Stalinist gatekeepers who would forbid it from the surveillant’s soul.
“If I keep listening to this,” Lenin famously said upon hearing the Appassionata, “I won’t finish the revolution.”
In this scene from the 2006 German film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck depicts what has long been suspected, roundly attested to, but nevertheless routinely dismissed with regard to any practical or world-changing effect: art has a transformative power, and for all the swords that have been beaten into plowshares and all the sabers that have become pens, the weathering ground has often been a palette, a stage, or a stretch of stanza-filled velum. That the film’s quiet, multi-dimensional expression uses this truth as a theme that folds back upon itself is one of its great triumphs; in other words, the film becomes a script of a script—a creation that in its forming changes the Stasi agent Hauptmann Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an amanuensis with his own designs, into a human being with creative ones. The character becomes a man who enters the drama of those he had only meant to control. Where the story begins, where it ends, and our own part in the daily making of life and reality are wound into the resolution. In the dead, concretized, uniformity of the Bolshevik state, breath is drawn from the timbre of a sad song.
What modern European cinema can bring to an understanding of man’s existential dilemma is unique (though in no way more important than American contributions, or that of other countries). Why this is so is perhaps owed largely to what it is that makes any area unique—the peculiar tensions and dynamics that play through a particular culture and people, even those as varied as Europe’s. Every land is old to someone, but the American experience has most characteristically involved the tension of the frontier, the new being met by, even hounded by, the even newer. An American leitmotif has been that of the forces of modern culture overwhelming the individual in waves that are at one moment lit by gaslight, the next by neon, the next by laser. On the other hand, one aspect of the European experience can be seen as the old meeting the older—a long-established culture faced by something more basic than itself, something deep within the core of human desire. Often, refinement and civilization are challenged by that which is “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson would have it. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin—the American achievement most characteristically depicting modernity at work on the human soul, the European depicting the human soul, particularly in its depraved state, at work on modernity. This is not meant as an exclusive or all-encompassing observation, but only one aspect of what European film is up to, and as a means by which some of the best current offerings can be understood.
Von Donnersmarck’s work begins in a government training classroom, where Wiesler is teaching interrogation techniques. The students listen to a recording of Wiesler grilling a man with a barrage of questions; the suspect, not allowed to sleep, is eventually reduced to an emotional basket case. As Wiesler turns off the recording, he asks the class how it was so clear that the subject was lying. No one can answer, so he explains that all the disavowals were related in rote fashion. Lies are uniform, Wiesler says. The truth can be reformulated.
Here, the film sets a benchmark from which the drama proceeds. For the distinction between the banality of lies and the spontaneity of truth is validated in both Wiesler’s mission and in the lives of its subject. The film nests lies inside truths inside lies: through the means of deceit, truth is revealed; through the exposition of truth, lies are uncovered. And at the heart of it all is a dramatist himself, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch).
Dreyman, a celebrated playwright on the East Berlin stage, is considered the least subversive of all the dodgy artists that the Stasi has its eye on. Still, an old colleague suggests Wiesler attend one of Dreyman’s plays, Faces of Love. In the tradition of the Berlin theater at the time, the playwright sat on the stage itself, in one corner, and this allows Wiesler to consider Dreyman’s reactions. And while on the surface the play comports with statist themes, Wiesler notes Dreyman’s face as he watches the lead actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). As a professional watcher and listener, Wiesler sees how Dreyman is affected by the performance; this is the face of love, and that notoriously unfettered thing, that notoriously creative thing, gives evidence against the two. Wiesler then asks permission to monitor the apartment Dreyman and Sieland share.
While the two artists are gone, Wiesler bugs the apartment with speed and skill. Then he assumes his position in the attic, like a detached, clinical mind set upon an abstract problem. But ironically, rather than finding an algorithm to be solved, Wiesler witnesses a drama that resists interpretation. All his training in character analysis, particularly of the “artist type”—in whose destruction he is well-schooled—is useless. The textbook examples explaining the script that particular “characters” will follow do not hold true. The people below him live complex and unpredictable existences, at least here in their cell of authenticity. The earphones he uses detect a living, breathing thing, a real heart; in consequence, Wiesler comes to hear his own.
As the plot proceeds, the agent listens in on Dreyman’s birthday party, where there are joys of friendship and belonging; in an embarrassed moment, he is met with the sounds of Dreyman and Christa-Maria making love, a passion lacking in his solitary existence. Yet he also learns of the inhabitants’ human failings; Christa-Maria relies on pills to calm her deep-set anxieties, a fact she tries to hide from Dreyman. In addition, Wiesler listens to accusations of betrayal. Dreyman, though loyal to his friend, is accused of being a fence-sitter by a braver artist.
All of this works on Wiesler in an unintended way; he himself is worn down by the truth, just as he has worn down others to expose their lies. Eventually, he begins to draw chalk lines on the floor, tracing out the rooms of the apartment where life is being lived below. On one hand, it is part of his job to do this, to understand where people are when they say what they do. But on the other hand, what is real is rising up through the floor like vapor, where it materializes in the place he inhabits.
At length, he learns that the purpose of his involvement in the artists’ lives is not to ensure the communist ideal by uncovering dissident libertines, but something older, more basic—in fact, something base. Comrade Hempf lusts after Christa-Maria and wants Dreyman removed. This discovery unseats the agent’s certainty of his position. He witnesses Hempf’s virtual abduction of Christa-Maria—accomplished by threatening her career—as the perverse thing that it is: the oldest of tricks meant to destroy the best of things. Wiesler even helps orchestrate Dreyman’s discovery of the affair. But instead of what he expects to hear, Wiesler listens as Dreyman pleads with his lover to have more faith, to realize she doesn’t need the state’s approval. In answer, Christa-Maria accuses Dreyman of his own kind of prostitution. Despite your faith and talents, she says, you get into bed with them too.
Here the plot enfolds Wiesler, pulling him within the drama by means of the human quandary. When next Christa-Maria leaves the apartment for a rendezvous, Wiesler follows. And when she stops at a bar for a bracing drink, he confronts her as a “fan.” Wiesler lets her know that people like him are her “audience,” that she is a great talent, and that only when she refuses to be true does she fail. She asks him what he would think of a person who sells herself for art, to which he replies, “You already possess it—it would be a bad bargain to sell what you already have.”
Not only does his plea change her plans, sending her back to a waiting Dreyman, but it also gives Dreyman the courage he has long looked for, one necessary for the cause of the resistance. An essay Dreyman writes on suicide in the communist regime, penned on a contraband typewriter and smuggled out to the West, has a profound effect. However, it is also a catalyst that brings suspicion down upon Wiesler himself. There is no going back, once he has entered the story. But that cost is also the making of Wiesler as a human being. In a real sense, there is a rebirth through the flesh and blood and breath of the drama he has engaged. The story becomes the author of the soul, a composition of the love he has beheld. By way of the sonata, a good man is made.
While von Donnersmarck’s film centers upon the workings of old desires on modern ideas, Italian director Giuseppi Piccioni’s films come at modernity from a different set of impulses, focusing on an urban world that constantly resists man’s quest for intimacy.
In 1999’s Fuori dal Mondo (Not of This World), two lives are juxtaposed by the occurrence of the most fundamental of human events, the birth of a child. What this occasion precipitates is not the commonplace set of emotions, but the stirring up of unknown needs.
As the film opens, a charge is being given by a mother superior to a classroom of young nuns. “You all want to be God’s favorite,” she chides them, at which they laugh in self-accusation. The mother superior continues her sobering monologue: “We are not called to do great works,” she says, “but everyday tasks. It is God who gives things their value.”
Included in the group is Sister Catarina (Margherita Buy), eleven months shy of her final vows. After her profession, she intends to do missionary work in South America. She is not only sure of herself, but also certain of how her future is to be played out. Although strong and capable, even reassuring to sisters whose misgivings plague them, Catarina’s confidence borders on a subtle arrogance, an imperfect self-knowledge.
Piccioni sets alongside Sister Catarina another character, Ernesto Nitti (Silvio Orlando), the owner of a dry cleaning establishment in downtown Milan. Just as the film opens with the mother superior’s charge to her novices, the story continues with Ernesto’s caution to the young laundresses. He says they are to care for things that matter—how to launder linen, how to iron silk—not for the things that don’t. This is his family business, we learn, one he carries on without apparent pleasure. His business is efficient and fair, but Ernesto is withdrawn into a cocoon of work and worry. He doesn’t know the names of his staff, refuses invitations from friends, and has unexplained panic attacks. Acupuncture is useless.
Catarina and Ernesto’s lives intersect when the nun is approached one day in a city park. A jogger runs up with a baby in his arms. He has found the abandoned child, wrapped in a sweater. Astounded, Catarina takes the infant to the hospital, and later finds a laundry tag in the garment. She goes to Ernesto’s business, hoping to discover the owner. The women there say that the sweater’s owner is Ernesto himself; it is one, he later explains, that he leant to a former worker. He then reluctantly agrees to help the nun find the girl. In the process, the two explain their lives to each other, fostering an odd partnership. Catarina tells Ernesto that his workers consider him fair but sad, news that seems an honest surprise to this most forlorn of men. When he asks Catarina why she became a nun, she answers with a question as to why he took up laundering. Because it was his father’s business, he explains, passionless, and wonders why her own field requires such passion-filled exaggerations—why all the bowing and kneeling? Because love is exaggerated, she replies. What real love cannot be known by the extreme things that it does? To this Ernesto has no answer, and the idea provokes a longing he has done his best to ignore.
As the film progresses, this search for something to be “exaggerated for” is provocative for Catarina as well. She learns from a letter that her own mother has struggled with the way that Catarina excludes her, and considers herself abandoned by her daughter. The missive stirs the nun deeply, awakening confusion as to her easy renunciations. Mesmerized, she goes to the hospital and takes the baby from his crib without permission, only returning him when she realizes that she has nowhere to go. “Everything happens at the wrong time,” a young novice complains, and it is only now that Catarina comes to see what she means. Her own sure calling comes into question for the first time.
As Ernesto and Catarina proceed towards a confrontation with the child’s mother, they are met with the cost of real vocations and are left at the doorsill of need. The focus that was so clear, of those old to the world and sure of their places in it, is revealed as no more sure or steady than the blurry, indistinct view of the baby himself, whose perspective Piccioni assumes from time to time—an alien who must make his own way, looking for the place where he should be. A recurrent theme in the film is the illustration of life’s “important things” being “done badly,” as Ernesto says. We lose sight of where we are going, where we want to go, and where we should. How often, the film suggests, we are the authors of our own exile.
From time to time, Piccioni interrupts the narrative with shots of groups—police officers, nurses, waitresses, laundry workers, nuns—all smiling and staring back at the camera as though for a group portrait. To the mantra of computerized music, as plaintive as a medieval chant, these presentations of people in a context are offered, studies of inclusion and identity within a unit. Even the loneliest of souls can belong within a particular circumstance, if only that of a nine-to-five day. This desire for membership, so often at war with the modern personality, amounts to a silent call, a yearning resisted as much as admitted. The pictorial reminders beg the question of what it is we seek, and whether the modern quest for independence is what we truly want, or only what we have agreed to say that we do.
Piccioni returns to the themes of alienation and belonging in his 2001 film, Luce dei Mei Occi (Light of My Eyes). A voiceover attends the opening scene in which a well-dressed young man drives a sleeping passenger in the back seat. The nightscape of suburban Rome seems eerie, plasticized light falling out of storefront windows. The voiceover speaks of “Morgan,” a space traveler sent on a mission to another world. Morgan, we are told, has forgotten his real name; he chose the one he has because others seem less diffident towards him when he uses it. The inhabitants of the new place are a mystery, and he wonders if they, like he, love Christmas, soccer, and the joys of family Sundays. He reflects on what their destinations are, as “everyone wants to go somewhere.”
The driver, Antonio (Luigi Lo Cascio), is a chauffeur. A devotee of science fiction, he lives alone, is well liked by his colleagues, and is a particular favorite of his boss; he knows when not to talk and is always available to take shifts. Chauffeurs, we learn, are lonely—either divorced or single—constantly called to transport others through the silent dark to islands that they cannot enter. Antonio often drives people who speak candidly of their lives, in the way of those who either know someone very well or not at all: a woman on the way to her father’s grave, who explains the man was practically a stranger; a man whose wife is dying, who forces himself on business trips so she will not think him sad.
Antonio looks out through the windshield of his own ship, curious, but also troubled, weakened, like the voiceover says of “Morgan”; something about him is no longer impervious to the vicissitudes of his missions, to the arm’s-length quality of his life. So rather than have supper alone, Antonio frequents a crowded pizzeria in his neighborhood. He sits at a small table that, though still separated, is at least close to others who dine nearby. He watches as he eats.
As Antonio is returning the car to the garage late one night, a young girl runs across his path. He swerves, stops the car, then gets out to investigate. The girl, Lisa (Barbara Valente), was trying to catch her cat. She has been waiting for her mother to come home from the frozen food store that she owns. As they talk, Lisa’s mother, Maria (Sandra Ceccarelli), rides up. She is furious at Lisa for being out so late, but also cold and suspicious about Antonio’s presence. Still, something of Antonio’s longing finds an answer in meeting the two. He goes by the frozen food store the next day, to watch the mother and daughter through the glass of his car, through the glass of the store. In time, Lisa and Maria come to the pizzeria, where Antonio invites himself over to their table. At first resistant, Maria finally invites him home. He comes to learn that Maria’s husband left her, that the man’s parents want custody of Lisa, that the frozen food store is deeply in debt, and that Maria is involved in a stormy relationship. When Antonio explains that he himself is a chauffeur because, though a good student, he was never sure he really wanted to “go anywhere,” Maria invites him to stay. But the very next morning she tells him it was a mistake and that it cannot happen again. This whipsaw attitude towards Antonio is repeated, as Maria calls upon him to mind the store or babysit Lisa while she sees her lover.
One night at the store, Antonio discovers checkbook stubs registering payments to a man whose card is stashed away in the till. He goes to see the man, Saverio (Silvio Orlando again), a loan shark and a document forger. He had given Maria the money to start her store, and his extortionist payments are sinking her business. In exchange for leniency toward Maria, Antonio offers the man his services: he will drive him where he wants as long as Maria is never told. Saverio sneers at this; “you’ll want your payback from her” at some point, he says. Antonio assures him no; he has experience with anonymous sacrifice, something that he relays at one point in a story about his childhood.
The refusal of companionship, despite the brilliancy of genuine love, is at the center of both Piccioni films mentioned here. The need for one story to enter another, to gain richness and dimension, provides the same kind of meta-dramatic power that von Donnersmarck accomplishes. To entertain Lisa, to involve the lonely child in the lives of others, Antonio discusses a science fiction novel he has loaned her. Lisa is not fond of it, as it features “unreal” things; but Antonio cautions that unseen things can be real. To prove that fact, he asks her to survey the memories of customers in the store; aliens, he says, can take over humans’ bodies sometimes, but they cannot take over their memories.
The store of love, of loss, of worth, is found in the life lived, in the deeds done, not in the inchoate promises that we shape our lives around; and yet, rather than land and inhabit what is known and proven, we revolve like satellites around places that forbid us, or travel towards sparkling lights that may prove illusory. Maria constantly tells Antonio that she does not and cannot love him, even in the face of all he does for them, even in the face of all her lover fails to do. This Antonio bears, though he is drawn deeper into sacrifices on her behalf that compromise his job and integrity.
Saverio takes to having Antonio collect money from illegal aliens, people whom he hides in rental properties and whose identities he sells through forged passports. This legitimacy, this need to belong, is keenly felt by Antonio, “traveler” that he is. What this primal longing ultimately reaps in the characters’ lives is catalyzed in a marvelous scene in which the joy of Lisa’s birthday party, a “spaceship” themed event, is interrupted by a phone call from Maria’s lover. While all the children celebrate, Antonio is forced to watch through a space helmet he has made as Maria once again destroys the world she has for the world she has every reason not to want.
Yet another perspective in European cinema is that of the Belgian Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. But while von Donnersmarck explores the transformative power of love and beauty upon ideology, and Piccioni focuses on the need for intimacy resisted by modernity, the Dardenne brothers feature something more elemental yet: a matter of sheer decency, and its fight for inclusion in the myriad of callous choices that present themselves in a hardscrabble existence.
The brothers most trenchant films include La Promesse (1996), a magnificent work in which a young boy defies his father in order to honor a promise to a dying man; and their two most recent, Le Fils (2002) and L’Enfant (2005). All are set in Belgian working-class cities, raw, colorless, shells of more prosperous times. The characters move through border areas, the least hospitable of what is already an inhospitable cityscape: roadsides, riverbanks, slums, the undergirths of bridges, the skeletons of worksites. The naturalistic approach of their filming stresses the grittiness of their themes—no musical scores, no lighting (only a gray, suffused light—weak even in the morning), and camera angles that keep the action at shoulder height. In this way, the shots make the viewer an invisible observer, an unacknowledged third party to the plights portrayed. The tales themselves are spare and intimate—as streamlined as short films—focusing on the intricate facets of cataclysmic events. Finally, the films mentioned here all involve adolescents, particularly criminal adolescents, who confront the audience with the amazing perversity of a world fallen to a point in which mere children wander through the darkest reaches of the heart.
In their most recent outing, L’Enfant (The Child), a young girl, Sonia (Déborah François), carries her newborn child around the city, trying to find her equally young boyfriend. When she finally locates him, Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is acting as a lookout for a crime that is taking place. Bruno was not at the child’s birth and is not particularly interested in his son. In addition, while Sonia has been in the hospital, he has sublet her flat, so that there is nowhere to take the baby. After they find a spot in a shelter, Bruno leaves to fence some stolen property. He returns for Sonia and the baby the next morning in a convertible he has rented with the money.
As it turns out, Bruno runs a gang of petty thieves composed of children, boys no older than twelve. Slightly larger but no more mature than they, Bruno plays about the city, wasting his loot; everything is bargained for, everything for sale. “Working is for fuckers and assholes,” he tells Sonia, and it is only at her insistence that they legally recognize the child, “Jimmy.” Despite all this, the two play like eight-year-olds—chasing each other about, fighting and rolling on the ground with the joy of schoolchildren. The sleeping baby is all that reminds the viewer of how grim and paradoxical their lives truly are.
In Bruno, the Dardennes create a character both fascinating for what he is capable of and for what is fathomless about him—a small man-child surrounded by other children. Bruno delights in running sticks through water, in leaving muddy shoeprints on walls—his attention span as changeable as any boy’s when he is met with something shiny and bright. It is just that Bruno is also a lover, a father, and a thief, one who can act with callousness at the sale of things in which he has no stake. As nothing has consequence for him; nothing has value.
This alone would make for an interesting portrait, but the Dardennes’ naturalism in film techniques is not carried over to their thematic concerns. For Bruno is presented with a moral choice: the chance to sell something in which he does have a stake. He is told that people offer a lot of money to adopt children. And while Sonia waits in line one day, Bruno offers to take Jimmy for a walk. Whether the idea is planned or spontaneous makes little difference, as his face registers no compunction when he calls his fencer to say that they have agreed to sell the child. Not only does he tell this lie, but he also lies to Sonia when she calls to check where he is; on his way to traffic her baby, Bruno says they are in the park and that the boy is sleeping well.
In a silent, empty building, as the baby moans and whimpers against his shoulder, Bruno makes his way to a deserted apartment. There, with utmost tenderness, he shuffles off his coat so as not to wake the child, drops it on the floor, and lays his son on top, as though in a cradle. It would all resemble the attentions of a good father, careful of his baby’s rest, except that Bruno then takes his cell phone from the jacket, goes into the next room, and calls to say “all set.” In a scene painful to watch, he listens, standing against faded wallpaper, yellowed and discomforting, lit by an opaque light that makes the room seem timeless, a space just opened, like a tomb enstaled with unbreatheable air. After the cell phone rings, Bruno returns to find only his coat and an envelope of cash.
There is always the hint that the boy knows something of the gravity of his act, but again, it is the recognition of a child, one more uncomfortable than ashamed. Bruno is like a boy who has recklessly killed his pet, yet nevertheless plays alongside the carcass with a strange intensity, as though circumstances can be changed through frenzy and disregard. But what confronts Bruno, and from whence this confrontation comes, makes a moral telling ground for him. Sonia learns what he has done—news he delivers with slight aggravation and the casual assurance that “we can have another”—and she collapses. Hospitalized, she reports him to the police. Bruno immediately calls the men who have taken Jimmy and explains why the child must be returned. A deal is reached, but it comes with a costly catch that forces Bruno deeper into a life that was only a playground to him before. And though throughout the film people have searched for Bruno, the reversal puts him in the pursuit himself—no longer chased, but trudging in search of remedies in a sorrow-made world.
The indecency of certain choices at play in modern society is approached from another angle in the Dardennes’ 2002 film, Le Fils (The Son). But here, the brothers start from a point at which the loss is not made, but already keenly felt; not a corollary of past acts, but a suffering for the acts of others. In Le Fils, the main character lives in, and must find his torturous way back from, a place of utter devastation that Bruno in L’Enfant narrowly avoids.
Olivier (a role for which Olivier Gourmet won Best Actor at Cannes) is a carpentry instructor at a technical school. Tall and powerful, with thinning hair and thick glasses, he is a serious but earnest man who wears coveralls and a back support belt. Olivier has the respect of the boys he teaches, but lives alone in an apartment as unfinished as a work site. His gentle, solicitous ex-wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart) is pregnant and soon to remarry; he, on the other hand, remains isolated. When alone, with the belt still buckled tight, he lies on the floor, puts his feet in a chair, and exercises, as though releasing a pent-up sadness.
What seems a steady existence for Olivier is interrupted when he’s asked to take a new carpentry student. Glancing at the boy’s name, he immediately refuses. Still, he follows behind the principal to spy on the boy as he’s taken to the welding class instead. He then makes other excuses to see the young man, and obsessively follows him in his car, watching as he gets off a bus and wanders about to find his new flat. The boy obviously means something to Olivier, an assumption confirmed when he later tells the principal he will accept him in the carpentry class after all. Told to get him from the locker room, the care with which he approaches is filmed so that the import of their relationship is telegraphed before its significance. Olivier peeps around the corner, as stealthy as though facing a wild animal.
The boy, Francis (Morgan Marinne) sleeps on a bench. When roused, he is shown to be somber, polite, and humbly interested in carpentry. He does all he is told, never imposes on others, and comports himself with a sad formality that Olivier resists. The man avoids facing him whenever he can, and makes an effort not to touch him in any way.
At length, Olivier visits Magali where she works at a gas station. He wants to say he’s happy for her remarriage and her pregnancy, though when she first told him he had reacted bizarrely, demanding to know why she had come on that particular afternoon to give him the news. And then, the reason such a thing could shock him, coming as it had on the same day as the new boy’s arrival, becomes clear.
“Francis Therion got out,” he tells her, all at once. “He came to the center to study carpentry.”
With this news, the burden that the two have born is revealed, a burden that explains what must have torn them apart, and what Olivier must bear in his quiet way alone, constricting it tightly as though it is a wound beneath the belt he cinches and re-cinches at his waist: in the past, the boy, Francis, had done something to devastate their lives—though Francis and the couple never met. The reason leaves the audience in wonder as to why Olivier has taken the boy in without revealing his identity. He lies when Magali wants to know more; the boy was refused admittance, he says, but then adds, as if to seek permission: “I was thinking, maybe I should—teach him carpentry.” The woman is repulsed, and apparently knowing more of his character than we, begins to spy herself, eventually learning the truth.
“No one would do this,” Magali tells the man, “so why are you?”
The power of this emotional impasse only grows. Olivier steals the boy’s keys and lets himself into his flat—to sit where he sits, to lie where he lies. It as though these acts will make him understand his tragedy better, as though if the boy can become human to him, Olivier will be released from his obsession.
Francis grows in his admiration for Olivier, carefully learning this most metaphoric of trades. With wood and saw, hammer and nails, the boy crafts a life under the man’s tutelage, carries lumber across his shoulder in the man’s wake; crosses, literal and figurative, are justified in the imagining. Olivier learns the boy is alone—his mother has rejected him—and that he is on sleep medication; he also witnesses Francis curl into a ball, hands over head, after a climbing accident one day, revealing some instinctive, adaptive response to a hard life of beatings.
But the Dardennes do not neglect the emotions that justify Magali’s repulsion, and when Olivier offers to take Francis on a long trip to buy lumber, more sinister motives present themselves. On the way, the unsuspecting boy asks if he can call Olivier by his first name, as the other boys do, and asks if the man will be his sponsor, since it is he who is teaching him his trade. Olivier, stunned, pulls the past from him as a consequence. Francis confesses that he has been in jail for something he did when he was eleven.
With that news, the boy falls asleep. Olivier cannot resist watching him; at one point, he even slams on the breaks to send the boy crashing into the dashboard. He claims a rabbit had crossed the car’s path. And when the boy continues to ask if they’ve reached their destination—“how much further?”—“how much further?”—the tension of where they are going and what Olivier means to do creates a sort of distorted Abrahamic archetype—the great patriarch traveling on his heart-heavy task with an unwitting Isaac in tow. What burdens Olivier carries here: the adoration a boy who might in any other circumstance be something of a son to him; and the strange, unripe remorse of an adolescent whose regret can only be as complex as his maturity, and even so is tempered by the fact that he was a scared child at the time of the crime. When the two enter the lumberyard—empty and quiet except for their secret task—only Olivier knows the weight of his cross. What follows is as strong a statement of redemptive power as has been filmed in recent memory.
In the works surveyed here—a representative sampling of the many worthy offerings from Europe over the past decade or so—the human predicament is presented in pictures drawn both large and small, in places destitute and places overrun, in the privileged and in the deprived. Their themes touch upon questions that precede the ancient places through which modern man walks: what can bring the outsider within, and what keeps the alien without? But regardless of the approach, there is still a commonality in these disparate portraits. For all its monumentalism, this ever-evolving civilization—old with answers, swollen with self-rule, calloused with choices—is not so insulated or depraved that it lies beyond the call of that which brooded when Leviathan was made, and when the moon was separated from the stars. It is the image of an old music, but one whose effects work in fresh, inspired ways. The instincts that drive us to love, need, and protect that which we love and need, reach deep and pull hard—most powerfully when shimmering from an artist’s hand, arranged by an artist’s eye.
They are not always easy to see, these pictures, and sometimes unsettling to behold. But that, of course, is beauty’s trap, which lures us in only to free us: a shadowed tunnel that proves a sunlit path, a key slipped into manacles that we did not know we wore.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.