Blu-ray Review – La Promesse
A sparkling new Blu-ray edition of the moving Belgian film La Promesse (The Promise) is coming out as part of the Criterion Collection. As is often the case, just by virtue of being selected for the Criterion treatment, this is a movie worth attention. I personally was previously unfamiliar with this movie and the filmmaking duo of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. But with this release, I have become instantly intrigued by these filmmakers.
La Promesse is the story of a teenage boy named Igor and his self-serving, manipulative father, Roger. While in the official eyes of the law Igor skips school to be an apprentice to an auto mechanic, in reality he helps his father run his business as a smuggler of illegal immigrants into Belgium. Roger sneaks people in over the border and quickly takes advantage of them as both a slumlord and employer in his construction business. He uses the illegal labor and overcharges them for necessities like heat in their rooms. Early in the film are many scenes of how he collects various fees from the tenants, who have little choice in the matter. When one of his current tenants has him smuggle in his wife and child from Africa, complications arise that plant the seed for the “promise” of the title.
Jeremie Renier as Igor is a revelation in this film. He was just 14 in 1996 when La Promesse was originally released. This is one of those moving and effortless child performances we see every once in a while. He is affecting, but not overly showy. He can be a self-serving snot at times, sometimes as manipulative as his dad. In the very opening scene, we see him steal an old woman’s wallet. But later, when he is joyously riding his homemade go-kart with his friends, we are reminded that he is still merely a child. Meanwhile, the character of Roger, played by Olivier Gourmet, is startling in his ability to be opportunistic and selfish. He looks quite like an average person. The Dardennes have filmed this in such a way that his calculating manipulations seem somewhat mundane.
The filmmaker brothers started their careers creating documentaries about the poor and disenfranchised. It shows. La Promesse has a very realistic feel. The simple everyday horrors that Roger ends up inflicting on both his clients and his son end up being that much more startling because of it. Igor’s story strongly evokes another French language classic, The 400 Blows, with its tale of an outcast boy who must deal with harsh authority. Gradually, Igor wakes up to the harshness of what his father is doing. Meanwhile, how a mundane man can commit atrocities and couch it in serving his family reminds one of the TV series Breaking Bad. However, Bryan Cranston’s character there is infinitely more sympathetic than this creature. Roger is a scumbag of the first order.
Criterion has done a first-rate transfer of the film itself. According to the accompanying booklet (which features an enlightening introductory essay by author Kent Jones), using a 35mm blowup under the supervision of the film’s cinematographer Alain Marcoen, they cleaned up the image itself. While this is a smaller budget film, the look of it with this transfer has made it age incredibly. Honestly, this does not feel like a movie that is fiftenn years old. The film is free of blemishes and looks crisp.
While originally La Promesse had a stereo 2.0 soundtrack, they have remastered it into a solid 24 bit 5.1 surround sound DTS track. This isn’t the most dynamic sounding film ever. Large portions of the movie take place without a score, the sound is dialogue-heavy, and not much will tax your home theater system. Most of the sound is front channel specific. Given all that, the surrounds are used when appropriate. There are noticeable points where various characters speak from the left, right, and rear channels. It’s a subtle use, but it does enhance the storytelling. Regardless, the voices are clear and tight.
In the realm of supplemental materials, this is one of the more spare Criterion offerings. Quite possibly, since this was the Dardennes’ earliest major success, there probably wasn’t a ton of background materials available. We get two interview segments created specifically for this release. One is an interview with the principal actors Olivier Gourmet and Jeremie Renier. They talk about how the directors encouraged them to find the natural centers of their characters. They relate how this film was more interested in how they organically interact with each other as father and son. This helped them both, since they were both relatively inexperienced at the time. Intercut with footage from the film, this is a brief but interesting look into their acting process.
We also get an interview with the directors themselves. This one is conducted as a conventional Charlie-Rose-style interview with film critic Scott Foundas. Through this, we get to hear Luc and Jean-Pierre discuss how they came to this project after frustration with a previous film. Mainly having experience with documentaries, filming this drama about families and the disenfranchised provided a unique challenge. But in making this movie, they say they were able to create what has become the Dardenne method—essentially, by writing the script themselves, using unknown actors, and creating their own schedule (usually shooting in chronological order), they finally found a system that worked. Very interesting.
There is also a trailer for the film included on the disc.
La Promesse is a new discovery for me personally, and a terrific film. The issue of taking advantage of illegal immigrants proves to be universal. Though set in Belgium, you could easily picture a similar story occurring in the American Southwest. Immigrants are easy prey for unscrupulous people looking for a quick buck. And layered on top of that political issue is the relatable drama of a boy waking up to the abusive relationship he has with his father. While this is on the more bare-bones side of the usual Criterion releases, the awesome film transfer and compelling story make this a highly recommended disc.
Overall Release Grade: A-