La Promesse is, alongside The Son, the best film I’ve seen by the great Dardenne brothers. It’s really close to perfect, and all of their trademarks are there, even this early in their filmography: handheld camera, long takes, phenomenal performances from young actors, subtly great costume design, low-income protagonists, moral dilemmas.
The great Olivier Gourmet is Roger, father of Igor (Jeremie Renier, not to be confused with Jeremy Renner). Together they rent apartments to illegal immigrants. Roger’s oscillation between seemingly-caring and violent makes for a dangerous, nerve-wracking character. Igor is young and impressionable.
One of the reasons Dardenne films are so good is because of the attention to detail. La Promesse is no exception, taking every moment and injecting them with meaning, life, and length. Like this one, where Igor washes blood from his ankle and the camera lingers on the shot:
Roger can be so charismatic, a real testament to Gourmet’s abilities. It’s what makes him so dangerous. Here’s a good example of costuming (Roger and Igor’s are basically reverse of one-another; it feels like good thrift store finds, but never sloppily so), and a typical, albeit simple, camera move from the Dardennes.
The camera starts in a low angle on Roger-
-he walks towards Igor and passes him, landing in a medium shot:
Almost all of the coverage in the film is like this. Most instincts – mine included – would be to cover this in at least wide and shot-reverse, but the Dardennes keep things fluid and moving. There’s tension in all of their frames, even when nothing tense seems to happen. It’s a trope that a lot of horror and modern indie films have adopted, but here it’s highly choreographed, and most of the time it feels as though the operator is trying to keep steady, rather than the opposite.
There’s a lot of physicality in La Promesse. I like that, when difficult actions take place, you can feel the weight. No stunt doubles or off-screen help here, and it shows:
This image below feels as stylized as I can ever remember in a Dardenne film. It’s a beautiful shot, and though it holds for awhile, there’s real action happening, so it doesn’t feel gratuitous – as in, beauty only for the sake thereof:
La Promesse is a lot about belief and beliefs. There’s a portrayal of an African witch doctor-
It’s interesting that a) some of what this doctor says sounds like sound advice and b) it’s not derided in any way in the film. Igor listens patiently, and is in fact happy when Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) takes some of the advice.
Here’s another look at a poignant moment in the film. This one is the odd couple, but from the back it could be a small family unit. It’s intentionally framed that way. I love how the red of the baby’s hood complements the duller red on Igor’s jacket, while Assita’s colors set her apart: