5 Best Movies to Watch by Jean-Pierre Dardenne

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The Kid With A Bike is a deceptively simple title for a film this stirring. At 12 years old, Cyril (Thomas Doret) has been abandoned to social care by his father (Jérémie Renier) — but what’s really heart-wrenching is that he’s in denial about the finality of their separation. Cyril’s muscles are seemingly always coiled, ready to spring him away from his carers and onto the next bus that’ll take him to his disinterested dad, who has secretly moved away to “start anew.” It’s only through the random force of Cyril’s few words — like the moment he asks the first stranger to show him some kindness (Samantha, played by Cécile de France) if she’ll foster him on the weekends — that we get to sense the depth of his desperation, because neither the film nor Doret is showy in that regard.

The film pulls off transcendency because of these restrained performances and its unfussy realism. In the quietness of the storytelling, emotion hits unexpectedly — and deeply. The everyday tragedy and miraculous hope of Cyril’s life are set off by some enormously moving orchestral Beethoven, the very grandeur of which underscores the effect of the humanist filmmaking: affirming the inherent preciousness of his troubled, oft-rejected child.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Baptiste Sornin, Cécile de France, Egon Di Mateo, Fabrizio Rongione, Jérémie Renier, Myriem Akheddiou, Olivier Gourmet, Samuel De Rijk, Thomas Doret

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Rosetta begins fiercely, with a shaky handheld camera chasing the eponymous teenager (Émilie Dequenne) as she storms across a factory floor and bursts into a room to confront the person she believes has just lost her her job. The film seldom relents from this tone of desperate fury, as we watch Rosetta — whose mother is a barely functioning alcoholic — fight to find the job that she needs to keep the two alive.

As tough as their situation is, though, Rosetta’s fierce sense of dignity refuses to allow her to accept any charity. A stranger to kindness and vulnerability, her abject desperation leads her to mistake these qualities for opportunities to exploit, leading her to make a gutting decision. But for all her apparent unlikeability, the movie (an early film from empathy endurance testers the Dardenne brothers) slots in slivers of startling vulnerability amongst the grimness so that we never lose sight of Rosetta’s ultimate blamelessness. Its profound emotional effect is corroborated by two things: that it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and that it helped usher in a law protecting the rights of teenage employees in its setting of Belgium.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anne Yernaux, Bernard Marbaix, Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Frédéric Bodson, Mireille Bailly, Olivier Gourmet

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Rating: R

The Dardenne brothers deliver one of their characteristic tests of empathy with this social realist tale centered around an apparently irredeemable soul. Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and his girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) are childish teenagers who have just welcomed their first baby, a boy named Jimmy. But the fact that he’s now a father and jointly responsible for a new life doesn’t seem to register with Bruno, a small-time criminal whose thoughts don’t extend beyond his next job and what he’ll buy with the takings.

Sickeningly, Jimmy’s birth gives the vacant-headed, impulsive Bruno an idea for a quick buck: he’ll use the black market to sell the baby to a family hoping to adopt. This awful act sets in motion a frantic set of events as Sonia’s horrified reaction signals to Bruno that he might have gone too far this time. Strikingly, though, we’re never sure if Bruno is experiencing a moment of genuine reflection — perhaps the first of his life — even up to the film’s dam-break of a final scene. The ghastliness of Bruno’s actions makes this a challenging watch, but the Dardenne brothers’ restraint and resolute refusal to moralize about their easily condemnable protagonist open it up to being a compelling reflective exercise on the limits of redemption.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Bernard Marbaix, Déborah François, Fabrizio Rongione, François Olivier, Jérémie Renier, Jérémie Segard, Mireille Bailly, Olivier Gourmet, Stéphane Bissot

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

This movie originally caught my eye for all the attention it got at the Cannes festival, but I assure you, all of the hype is more than warranted. Two Days, One Night takes you on an emotional journey with Sandra, recovering from depression and ready to get back to work, when she discovers that her co-workers, having to choose between receiving a bonus and Sandra keeping her job, hold her fate in their hands. And thus, barely convinced herself and with her husband as her only support, she sets out on an unlikely mission to convince the people to vote against the bonus so that she still has a salary. This movie will strike a chord for anyone who has encountered depression or even simply tried to understand the abstract concept that it is. Marion Cotillard flawlessly portrays through Sandra the desperate struggle of having to put up a fight despite the utter hopelessness that she finds herself drowning in. At strife with herself, watching her try even though every cell in her body has given up, is gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring at the same time. Before long Sandra's fight on the lay-off and on her own hopelessness seem to blur together. Whether she wins, is what keeps you hooked to the very end.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alain Eloy, Baptiste Sornin, Batiste Sornin, Ben Hamidou, Catherine Salée, Christelle Cornil, Christelle Delbrouck, Fabrizio Rongione, Laurent Caron, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Marinne, Myriem Akeddiou, Myriem Akheddiou, Olivier Gourmet, Philippe Jeusette, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Tom Adjibi, Yohan Zimmer

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Rating: PG-13

The Promise has all the trappings of a sleazy crime drama, but there's a sense of innocence buried underneath all the dirt that helps set it apart. Even as Igor helps his father do the shadiest things to exploit the illegal immigrants under their care, you can see the boy slowly wake up to the realization that life can't just be a series of transactions, rewards, and punishments. As writers and directors, the Dardenne brothers present Igor's coming of age with frankness and without pretension—even when a hint of the mystical begins to compel him to tell the truth. It might not seem all that complex at first, but the details that make up this world are fully immersive from start to finish.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Frédéric Bodson, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Jérémie Renier, Norbert Rutili, Olivier Gourmet, Sophia Leboutte

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne