There is one moment in “La promesse” (1996) that I will never forget.
Fourteen year-old Igor (Jérémie Renier) assists his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) in the family business, which involves maintaining slum housing in Belgium for African immigrants who pay, in part, by providing virtual slave labor for Roger in the renovation of a new property. One of the workers, Hamidou (Rasmane Ouédraogo), falls from a scaffold, and as he is dying he makes Igor promise to take care of his wife Assita (Assita Ouédraogo) and their baby. This is a remarkable scene in its own right though it is not the one to which I previously referred. As Hamidou’s life still hangs in the balance, Igor applies a tourniquet to staunch a wound and prepare him for a trip to the hospital, but Roger just drags a tarp over the helpless man and leaves him to die. Igor falls in line, as he has always done, but the scales have fallen from his eyes; he finally sees his father for the monster he truly is.
And Roger is indisputably a monster, yet you can see how Igor could have been charmed by him all these years. First of all, he’s his father even though he insists Igor call him “Roger” instead of “Pa.” Second, Roger does not often bare his fangs openly. He is not outwardly abusive or even violent, and the only time he lashes out physically at Igor, he immediately apologizes and, like the absolute super-bestest dad on earth, offers to make up for it by helping the boy get laid. Roger avoids direct conflict; he would rather sell out his immigrants to the police with a surreptitious phone call. And he has trained his son to be just like him.
But Igor takes his hasty and forced promise seriously. It helps that he has already set his eye on the very pretty Assita, who has only recently arrived. With Hamidou out of the picture (though Assita is led to believe he still lives but is in hiding), he provides for her as best he can. When he gets wind of Roger’s plan to sell Assita out as a prostitute, the boy has to become a man very quickly, stealing Roger’s van and spiriting Assita and her baby away, even though he does not have any plan to save her.
Over the next few days, Igor tries to get her help from the government (no dice) and witnesses her being abused by a couple of racist yokels. He wants to assume the role of protector, but he is a child and she is a woman who does not trust this son of the son of a bitch who has exploited her. They have an argument during which Assita orders him to leave her alone. Igor’s response comes as a genuine shock. As he inches towards the door with tears in his eyes, he launches himself towards Assita… and hugs her tightly. He does not want to let go. This desperate gesture unravels an infinitely complex knot of emotions, a combination of sexual attraction, Igor’s perception of Assita as a maternal figure (both as a mother to her baby, and a substitute for his own missing/inadequate mother), his guilt for his part in her husband’s death, her vulnerability, and her potential to provide salvation for him, a means for the son to very directly make up for the sins of the father. She is everything to him, and this physical connection expresses a profound experience he cannot articulate.
Intimate collisions and embraces would become a signature mark for the Dardennes brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, who directed and co-wrote “La promesse.” Today, just sixteen years later, they are two of the most dominant figures in world cinema, but “La promesse” was a bolt from the blue that announced a startling new vision on the international scene. Though they were already in their forties and had shot both documentaries and features previously, they both considered “La promesse” a first film, and it featured all of the production elements that would not only define their career, but also inspired so many imitators: hand-held mobile camera work, shooting in sequence and on real locations, the frequent use of numerous takes, a focus on working class Belgians and immigrants, and a direct confrontation with complex moral issues.
The combination of techniques lends the Dardennes’ films (which can be both criticized and complimented as looking very much like the same movie) an aura of immediacy and authenticity which speaks in part of their documentary roots, though, of course, their films are every bit as “constructed” as anyone else’s. They just happen to be constructed by master craftsmen.
One of the masters in this case is the neophyte actor Jérémie Renier who is exceptional as a sincere, driven, conflicted boy teetering on the precipice of a terrifying adulthood. The Dardennes have since used Renier in several films, and one of the distinct pleasures of the past decade and a half of world cinema has been watching him grow up on screen. In “The Kid With a Bike” (2011), Renier is now the one playing the irresponsible father to a sincere, driven, and conflicted boy, and we can all hope the Dardennes’ career lasts long enough for us to see Renier bouncing grandchildren on his knee one day. Olivier Gourmet has been even more of a Dardennes’ stalwart, and his performance as Roger is equally impressive. He is completely despicable, but completely convinced that he’s not such a bad guy. Like most bad guys.
The films is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p transfer is generally strong, but it appears the transfer is not always up to the challenge of capturing the sudden movements of the restless, close-quarters, hand-held camera, with some of the more abrupt movements looking a bit blocky. However, in general the picture’s grainy, gritty look suits the material just fine, and the soft color scheme is pleasingly naturalistic.
“La promesse” was released with a 2.0 soundtrack, but Criterion, for reasons undisclosed, has chosen to provide a re-mastered 5.1 soundtrack for this release. I would be surprised if there is a significant difference from the theatrical release, but I can’t really attest to that. This 5.1 lossless mix is clean and quietly dynamic without ever drawing attention to itself. The on-screen and off-screen sound of a moped is the most memorable sound effect from the film, and it sounds great here. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The disc includes a 60 minute interview with the Dardenne brothers conducted by critic Scott Foundas, and recorded in Belgium in 2012. The wide-ranging interview (Foundas speaks in English, the Dardennes in French with English subtitles provided) covers their early career, their re-birth as filmmakers with “La Promesse” and details their unique production methods. An hour is a long time to commit to an interview but this one is well worth it.
Criterion has also included a 2012 interview with actors Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet, recorded separately but edited together for this 18 minute featurette. They reflect back to their film debuts on “La Promesse” and the unusual working relationship they developed together.
We also get a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)
The 12-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Kent Jones.
“La promesse”was quite the revelation in 1996, and the Dardennes would prove to be a rallying point for critics who chafed at the endless promotion surrounding the simultaneous Dogme 95 movement. Though “La promesse” is not technically a first film, it was a re-invention for the brothers who would not disappoint with their second film “Rosetta” (1999) which won big at Cannes and which has also been released on Blu-ray this week by Criterion. As just as they were some of the defining directors of the very end of the last millennium, they have remained central voices in the first decade plus of the new one. Because of their central place in the contemporary canon, their “first” film has attained a special place in the hearts of critics and other viewers. Its reputation has not been exaggerated in the least.