Working with his younger brother Luc, Belgian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Dardenne became one of the burgeoning stars of international art cinema in the 1990s with their rigorous dramas about life in the depressed industrial district around Liège on Belgium's Meuse River. Filtering their political sensibilities through the lens of fiction, the Dardennes explored the clash between personal morality and the requirements for survival in such searing, intimately shot works as La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999).
Born in Engis, Dardenne grew up in the Belgian steel town Seraing. Though his family was middle-class, Jean-Pierre came of age amid the labor movement of the 1960s, missing school during strikes and witnessing rallies in the town center. Forbidden by his father to watch TV or see movies while he and his brother were growing up, Jean-Pierre horrified his parents by moving to Brussels when he was 17 to study acting. Under the tutelage of socially active Belgian playwright Armand Gatti, Jean-Pierre learned about the political and artistic possibilities of film and video, as well as the creative potential in using nonprofessional actors. After serving as Gatti's assistant on theater productions in the early '70s, Jean-Pierre returned to his home region. Working in a cement factory for several months to earn the money for film equipment, Jean-Pierre and Luc began chronicling the fallout from Liège's severe economic downturn in the 1970s, filming such events as strikes and union meetings in the series of videos d'intervention from 1974 to 1977. Intent on bringing a history of Belgian social activism to the attention of new generations, the Dardennes formed the soon-to-be prolific documentary production company Dérives in 1975.
From the late '70s to the early '80s, the Dardennes made such films as Le Chant du Rossignol (1978), about the Nazi Resistance in Belgium's southern Walloon region, and Leçons d'une Université Volante (1981), about emigration from Poland, for Belgian television. Tired of being limited by the realities of documentary, regardless of the theatrical methods the brothers used for presenting nonfiction, the Dardennes shifted to fiction films in the mid-'80s with their first feature, Falsch (1986). Though they played at such venues as the Berlin Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival, Falsch and the Dardennes' second feature, Je Pense à Vous (1992), didn't draw much attention beyond European festivals. Nevertheless, the Dardennes formed another production company, Les Films du Fleuve, in 1994 to continue making fiction work; Jean-Pierre began running a film and television workshop at Liège University that same year.
The Dardennes finally garnered more international attention with their next feature, La Promesse. Shot on location with handheld cameras, La Promesse used a stripped-down, realistic visual style to illuminate the harsh conditions of immigrants forced to work illegally, within an intensely personal story of a teenager who is forced to choose between morality and family ties when one of his father's exploited immigrant employees dies. A hit at the film festivals, La Promesse was a critical success on the international art-house circuit and won numerous awards, including the Los Angeles Critics' and the National Society of Film Critics' Best Foreign Film prizes. Further burnishing their artistic reputation, the Dardennes followed up their breakthrough with the equally intense drama Rosetta (1999). Focusing on the title girl's desperate, almost feral search for a job, Rosetta revealed how the desire for employment becomes a fight to find a place in the civilized world through claustrophobic, hand-held long takes that literally bore down on the anxious rituals and movements defining Rosetta's losing battle with a society that has no use for anyone on the margins. Along with winning Cannes' top Palme d'Or award, Rosetta also earned the festival's Best Actress prize for neophyte actor Emilie Dequenne's visceral performance as the beleaguered, minimally socialized Rosetta.
Rather than using their success to move on to glossier locations, bigger budgets, and celebrity casts, the Dardennes opted to stick with their Liège-based, low-budget operations to maintain control of their work and make the gritty, understated stories about working-class characters that they preferred. Their next film, The Son (2002), continued their mode of making films that, as they described it, derived suspense out of characters rather than elaborate plots. Shooting their lead actor, Olivier Gourmet, from behind for the early part of the film, the Dardennes keep the viewers in the dark about his hostile feelings toward his new carpentry student, Francis, until a revelation about murder deepens the stakes of their potentially paternal relationship. Another film festival and critical success, The Son confirmed the Dardennes' gift for directing actors as well as their storytelling abilities, winning Cannes' Best Actor prize for Gourmet (or, as some wags observed, the back of Gourmet's neck).