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Minds in the Dark: Cinematic Experience in the Dardenne Brothers’ Dans l’Obscurité

What happens to us when we watch visualized fictional narratives, otherwise known as movies? And what must we do in order to understand what we are shown? Is there a way of working to understand a film that goes beyond working to understand the details of its plot? When, at what point, have we understood a movie? Stanley Cavell has said that what serious thought about great film requires are “humane readings of whole films.” What are readings of films? Can either what happens to us in watching, or what we do in trying to understand, result in anything of any relevance to philosophy, to philosophical knowledge, if we allow ourselves to believe there might be such a thing?

These are difficult and very controversial issues. I propose only a small step in responding to such questions, or a narrow focus, let us say; a concentration on one two minute, forty-eight second short film called “Dans l”obscurité,” “In the Dark,” made in 2007 by the Belgian team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, about whom I’ll say more in a minute.

Just what we see and hear when we see and hear movie events and movie dialogues is a trickier question than it might seem. When we see Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo, we would not be surprised in the slightest if someone were to point out that, “really,” there on the screen is the famous actor James Stewart pretending to be the fictional character Scottie Ferguson. Of course we know this. We might plausibly deny, however, that what we see when we watch this movie is James Stewart, and then we make-believe or pretend that he is Scottie Ferguson, or we see Stewart, and imagine Ferguson “in our heads,” as it were. On the contrary, we are, we rightly say, watching to see what Scottie will do. We have to say something that the philosopher of film, George Wilson, claims in a recent book.1 We imaginatively see, or fictionally see the events occurring in the world of the movie. The objects of our attention are the events and characters of that world. There is no two-step process; real and fictionalizing. (There is no instruction by the film for the viewer to entertain “unasserted thoughts,” and so there is no two step process of first, immediate perception, and second, the making of inferences, drawing of consequences, entertaining of possibilities, as Noel Carroll has claimed.2) This does not mean that the movie experience is “brute” immediacy and nonconceptual; it is already as complexly conceptual as our perceptual experience of the world is. What is different about attending to a visualized fictional narrative is our mode of attending; we see imaginatively. There is much more to be said about this possibility, and there are scores of different film theories about this, but let us say, for the sake of argument, that just as one can look or attend carefully or distractedly or intently or anxiously, one can also see imaginatively.

In trying to explain the very real emotional effect of movies, and plays, it is sometimes said that this effect is made possible by a “willing suspension of disbelief.” But that can’t be right. We do not believe that Scottie is a real person; we do not forget somehow that we are watching a movie; we cannot will ourselves to believe there are real events occurring before us. We cannot will ourselves to believe or disbelieve anything, for that matter.

This has led some theorists to insist that what primarily happens in watching a movie is that we simply accept that we are in some way magically present as the events and dialogue within the fictional world of the movie unfold. This makes things easier, in the way that magic, were it possible, would make a lot of things easier, but it doesn’t get us very far. The main problem is that the way in which events in the movie-world unfold is not that they simply happen in front of us. We notice that we are seeing the events from a particular vantage point, that that vantage point keeps changing, that we suddenly are just inches from a character’s face as a huge close-up fills the screen. We are transported back in time, or to another place in the world, or into the future. That is, we cannot escape the fact that the visual fictional narrative at the heart of the film is being narrated by someone; choices are being made for us. Our access to the movie world is, to use another of Wilson’s terms, “mediated” not direct. And we have no trouble accepting that, that there is an implied controlling intelligence behind what we see, while at the same time we are wholly absorbed in the events of the movie-world, gripped by them. In many or even most films, our first viewing of the film amounts to a rather complete absorption in “the story.” One of the main respects in which first and subsequent viewings of films differ is that in the latter, we tend to pay more and more attention to how we are being shown what we are being shown, and why in just that way.

Since this is controversial, here are two brief examples of how easily we accept, fictionally or imaginatively see, the world of the movie and, at the same time, detect the presence of a narrator directing our attention, thereby suggesting what is significant, and often giving clues as to why, in what we are seeing.

This is a montage from Hitchcock’s great and very successful 1960 film, Psycho. We will see first the opening shot, a wide angle and distant, elevated pan of the city of Phoenix, Arizona. Since obviously, when someone is really looking at Phoenix, letters announcing the name of the city and the date and time, do not appear in the sky, the directed and selected, artificial character of what we are seeing is obvious, and not at all distracting. Then as the camera pans, we get some sense that it is looking for something, hesitantly, and that it finds its target. (The pan is also not continuous; there are dissolves, shifting our perspective, and, at the end, as we approach the window, there is an abrupt alteration of perspective.) The camera begins to move, and to draw us with it, to a particular hotel window, one “selected” out of many, and we sense a great (deliberately made) contrast between the blinding white desert light of the outside, and the dark, initially opaque inside of the hotel room. (This light/dark contrast is important throughout the film.) As the camera enters the room, we already sense some sort of violation of the privacy of the characters, who are in various states of undress. And the next thing our eyes can see is not what we would at all fix our attention on if we were glancing around this room of half-naked people. It is a very brief glance at an uneaten sandwich. (Note what happens later) This is followed in this montage by a brief scene at the end of the most famous sequence in the film, the shower murder of the film’s biggest star a mere third of the way through the film. Again the point is to note how easily we let ourselves be told what is happening in a very distinct and unusual way. The woman had stolen some money that is wrapped in a newspaper on the night table, and the camera acts as if a questioner, cinematically asking, in effect, if the reason for the murder was the money, the theft, and then shifting our attention to the window and a shot of the house behind, where we hear what we first believe to be the real reason, the insanity of the mother of Norman Bates.

If we accept this basic point about the epistemology of cinematic intelligibility, it has a crucial implication for that question about what we must do to understand a film. It helps explain why “readings” of films are unavoidable in such understanding. For this point about narrative mediation means that films can be understood as very much like speech acts addressed to an audience, which narrate some tale, and we can sometimes ask what the director—or the collective intelligence we can postulate behind the making of the film—meant by so narrating a tale. We want to know the point of showing us such a story at all, and showing it to us in just this way, with just this selection of detail. In the same way that we could say that we understood perfectly some sentence said to us by someone, but that we cannot understand the point of his saying it now, here, in this context, given what we had been discussing, we can also say that we can understand some complex detail of a movie plot, but wonder what the point might have been in showing us this detail in such a way in that context.

This allows us to put the point in an even broader way. Visualized fictional narratives, films, can be said to have many functions, can be said to “do” various things. They please for one thing, or they are painful to watch, but painful that is in some odd way pleasant as well. We can also say, in a simple common sense way, that films are ways of rendering ourselves intelligible to each other. Of course, if the question is what the director—or the collective intelligence we can postulate behind the making of the film—meant by so narrating a tale, sometimes the answer will be: he, or she, or they, meant only to be narrating the tale, because the tale is in itself entertaining, thrilling, hilarious. But some films can be said to attempt to illuminate something about human conduct that would otherwise remain poorly understood. The point or purpose of such narrating seems to be such an illumination. There is some point of view taken and not another; and so there is an implicit saying that some matter of significance, perhaps some philosophical or moral or political issue, is “like this,” thereby saying that it is “not like that.” And one other way of rendering intelligible or illuminating is to show that what we might have thought unproblematic or straightforward is not at all, and is much harder to understand than we often take for granted. Coming to see that something is not as intelligible as we had thought can also be illuminating. (Bernard Williams once remarked that there can be a great difference between what we think we think about something and what we really think, and great literature or great film can make clear to us in a flash, sometimes to our discomfort, what we really think.)

Now this linkage of topics only gets us to the brink of an unmanageably large question. If at least part of what happens to us when we watch a film is that events and dialogues are not just present to us, but are shown to us, and if the question that that fact raises—what is the point of showing us this narrative in this way?—does not seem fully answered by purposes like pleasure or entertainment, but because something of far more general, philosophical significance is intimated, some way of understanding something better, then that much larger question is obvious. The short film I want to discuss concerns two particular fictional characters and a very brief series of events in a particular movie theater at some particular time. How could such a visualized fictional narrative, concerning such particular persons and particular events, bear any general significance? Generality, we know, is a matter of form, and it is possible at least to imagine that the events we see are instances, perhaps in some way, highly typical and especially illuminating instances of some general form of human relatedness. Shakespeare, for example, would not be able to portray so well Othello’s jealousy, unless the origins and conditions and implications of jealousy itself were also somehow at issue. But how might such a level of generality be intimated by a narrative with a very concrete, particular plot, and what would explain the illumination’s relation to some truth, not to mere convincingness? (A film after all can be both powerfully compelling, can suggest an ambition to reach this level of generality, and, if the director is technically talented, can carry us along with this point of view, only for us on reflection to realize that the point of view we had been initially accepting is in fact infantile, cartoonish, pandering to the adolescent fantasies of its mostly male fans. I think of the undeniably powerful films of Quentin Tarantino as an example of this.)

One way such a level of generality can be suggested is by the relation of the films to other films, to films by other directors, referenced in a way that suggests the general purposiveness of that director’s overall project, and by reference to the film-maker’s other films, directly suggesting again such a commonality and so generality of purpose.

Both such means are used in the short film, Dans l’Obscurité and in all the films made by the Dardenne brothers, so I should now say something about their body of work. The Dardennes have accomplished something extraordinary. To date, from 1996 until the present, they have made seven theatrical fictional feature films for which they are willing to claim authorship. (Before this, they were for a long time well known documentary film makers, dealing mostly with the Belgian labor movement and its massive defeat in the early 1960’s.) All the films revolve around a basic moral question usually having to do with moral decisions and with responsibility, and all manifest a heightened sense of the complexity of the moral psychology necessary to understand the characters dealing with the question, especially given the social settings as portrayed by the films. Each film is clearly trying to represent the motivation and decisions of certain characters, but the Dardennes proceed under an unmistakable assumption: that there is often something very difficult to understand, even mysterious, about such motivations, decisions, and reactions by others. They are also obviously quite self-conscious about what it is to represent such issues in film and are clearly doing all they can to block or interrupt or prevent conventional assumptions about these issues (and their counterpart in conventional cinematic technique) from coming into play. (They use hand held cameras, follow along after characters from the rear, often show close-ups of the backs of heads, use many sudden jump cuts, and edit their scenes in ways that do not correspond to any conventional understanding of the natural beginnings and ends of actions or conversations.)3

This is especially striking because the acts in question can seem gratuitous and unmotivated, and in that sense very hard to understand. A boy, under no pressure, and clearly on the verge of escaping undetected, suddenly confesses to the wife of a man whose death he helped cover up. (The Promise 1996) A girl rendered almost insane by her inability to find work (already a great example of the theme just introduced; unemployment itself can be form of what could be called “objective” insanity), having informed on a friend to secure a job, suddenly resigns the position. (Rosetta 1999) A man decides to take on as an apprentice and help teach a boy who, he knows, murdered his own son five years earlier and, on the verge of vengeance, releases the boy and works with him. (The Son 2002) A street criminal casually, thoughtlessly, sells his just born baby for adoption, but when he sees the overwhelming effect of this on the child’s mother, his girlfriend, immediately retrieves the baby at enormous cost to himself and his future. (The Child 2005) An immigrant woman from Albania, having secured her own legal residence in Belgium, is involved in a plot to live with an addict until he overdoses, so that she can then, for money, marry and then divorce a Russian eager to emigrate and also gain Belgian citizenship. But she begins to help the addict get off drugs, ruining the plan, and in the face of terrifying threats of reprisals, continues to refuse to go along with the plan even after the addict is murdered by her accomplices. (The Silence of Lorna 2008). A woman who just by chance happens to be just once in the same place as a troubled boy searching for the derelict father who abandoned him, suddenly involves herself deeply in the boy’s life, ruining her own romantic relationship and assuming responsibilities no one would say she owed anyone. (The Kid with a Bike [2011]).

Moreover, the brothers often have in mind characters who are the victims of the new globalized world economy. This is a world where a ruthless form of competitiveness is forced on workers, where one person’s job is another person’s unemployment, and the two often know each other.4 Or the characters are migrants in a strange land; so they live so far outside the normal cycle of production and consumption that in some way their own relation to their inner lives, their own self-understanding, cannot be understood in ways typical for those who live “inside” the social world that these characters live “outside of.” Many of the films draw attention to the effects that having almost no public, recognized social status has on the way characters think of each other, and even how they understand (and often cannot understand) themselves. That link between the psychological and the social, or the demonstration of the inseparability between the moral economy of the soul and social relations of power and powerlessness, is one of the great achievements of their films.

I do not mean here to refer to the issue familiar in philosophy since Plato, the way the psyche can be shaped in very different ways by the education it receives and by the context of some particular regime. Democratic souls for democracies; oligarchic souls for oligarchies. Plato and many others keep the soul’s structure constant in such accounts, concentrating on the effects of the formation process on that structure. I think something much more radical is implicitly suggested by these films—that what counts as such a structure is at issue and open to real variation. This is particularly true of the psychological structure assumed in “explaining actions” or “assigning or accepting responsibility.” How we have come to think of that issue, the range of possible answers, may, if the brothers are right, have more to do with the imperatives of a particular social organization of power than it would be comfortable to admit. (What they have accomplished is all the more remarkable because the principal characters are not well educated or articulate or reflective and there is minimal dialogue and almost no reflective dialogue in their films anyway. Everything about what is traditionally thought of as their “psychologies” must be represented purely cinematically, through what they do and in their faces.)

In the terms we have already developed, we can say two things: that the point of their showing us these narratives this way is a moral point, a way of showing us something of some generality about modern moral experience, and that what they want to show us has something to do with the epiphanic nature of moral insight. These are my terms, not theirs, so I should briefly explain them. I mean by morality something quite broad. The moral question, as I will understand it, is what sort of claim on us, on our actions and refraining from action, on what we ought and ought not or ought never to do, does another human being have? Is there some consideration raised by the existence of another person, and the fact that an action of ours would affect what the other would otherwise have been able to do, that must count as some constraint on our pursuit of our self-interest? What sort of effects are of moral salience (harm being an obvious but not the only one) and what sort of actions are forbidden, obligatory or permissible in the light of such considerations? Some philosophers believe that the only reasons possible in such context are those that show that refraining from the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of another in some context is in the service of an overall self-interest only achievable by cooperation. This is what Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.” On this understanding, this is not a moral consideration. The morally motivated action need not necessarily be to our disadvantage but there must be some way of saying that the deed must be performed or avoided independently of the consideration of our advantage. I there is such a thing as morality, then these considerations are real and compelling. The idea is a staple of much Christian philosophy and is paradigmatically represented in the thought of Immanuel Kant. I will be able to show you what I mean in a minute.

Second, this description can sound like moral experience is like an internal or social debating society, where moral deliberation has something like the form of philosophical argument, pro and con. But we know from experience that this is rarely the case. Often the force of such a claim is not preceded or even followed by any discursive reflection, but is momentary and powerful in a way that the Dardenne brothers clearly regard as both common and quite mysterious. Such moments of insight, powerful even without a fully determinate content, are sometimes called epiphanies. The term is especially common in describing the endings of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce. And it is generally correct to say that all of their films revolve around some moral epiphany, usually at the end.

But, characteristically, what they are after in so many of their films is much easier to see than describe. Here are brief scenes from two of their films, The Promise (1996), and The Child (2005). In the first, The Promise, the boy you see, Igor, works with his father, a corrupt contractor, employing undocumented immigrants. One of them, Amidou, earlier in the film had fallen off a scaffold and gravely injured himself. Rather than take him to a hospital and face the possible discovery of his illegal labor force, the father allows Amidou to die, and he buries him under some cement at the site. Before he died, Amidou had asked Igor to promise to care for his wife and child. Igor does, but throughout the film, he does not tell the wife the truth. At the very end, he is escorting her to the train station, having allowed her to believe that Amidou is in Italy on a job. She is leaving in order to join him with her baby. Suddenly, he makes the admission you see. In The Child, a young petty thief and homeless boy, Bruno, sees an opportunity when his young girlfriend becomes pregnant and gives birth. Without telling her, he takes and sells the child to a black market adoption gang. When he sees, to his great surprise and confusion, the horrific effect this has on the mother, Sonia, he tries to get the child back, at great personal harm to himself, and he ends up in jail. The scene we will see is the end of the film, as he for the first time realizes the full force of the wrong he has done and his guilt. This realization is not articulated but embodied, suddenly, in tears, the first shed by him in the film.

This should be enough scene-setting for the short film.

Clip—In the Dark.

We are watching a pickpocket at work in a darkened and it appears, largely empty theater. (As in many discussions of how cinematic worlds are created and made credible, even in this very short narrative, we know a few things, and make a few inferences from the seen to the unseen; we can pose relevant questions.) The theater is empty. It might be an afternoon show at a revival house. The woman is alone. Does she often go to movies in the afternoon alone? Is she lonely? She is unusually moved by the film; that is, she is the sort of person (and what sort is this?) unusually receptive to cinematic pathos of this apparently high order. The pickpocket does not appear to be of a different social class. They could both be students. There is something significant in the actress being Émilie Dequenne, who starred, as a non-professional first-timer, in the Dardenne film, Rosetta (1999). If we know that film, we should be very surprised by the transition in the actress’s appearance and demeanor. (Still of Rosetta.)

We see the pickpocket’s hands first, quite elongated and thin-fingered, creep along. He is on all fours, like an animal (this will be significant), and a Hitchcockian tension or anxiety builds as he starts to open the purse of a young girl in the audience. The young man, a boy really, is making his move at the end of the film being played, which, we know from the sound track, from Schubert’s piano sonata #20, and its closing credits, is Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au hasard Balthasar. This is one of Bresson’s simplest and most powerful films, as well as riskiest, because we see the human events (mostly moments of cruelty, avarice, drunkenness, sexual predation, and vanity) from the point of view of a humble, innocent, and much abused donkey, Balthasar. He seems to bear the burden of this profound and unrelieved human sinfulness as patiently and as steadfastly as he bears the actual burdens he is forced to carry throughout the film. This means that we see in him a kind of mindedness that is not, in the conventional sense, psychological; it does not consist of a coherent “inner life,” and is of course, pre-linguistic. Yet there is no question that Balthasar is an aware and responsive witness, and that his witnessing presence alone creates a distinctive moral atmosphere.

Like so many of the Dardennes’ films, this short is concentrated on one epiphanic moment. The girl is weeping at the death of Balthasar, the scene that closes the film. I will show the ending later. As she reaches for a tissue, she catches the pickpocket in the act and grabs his hand, but in a startling, unexpected move that seems in some way prompted by the emotion aroused by the end of Au hasard Balthasar, she brings the boy’s hand up and presses it lovingly to her face. We do not at all expect a moment of such tenderness, and its erotic charge immediately backshadows what we have seen, giving to the boy’s hand pulling open her purse a sexual suggestiveness. We are left wondering at the meaning of such a gesture, since it cannot be preceded or even accompanied by any determinate intention or purpose, and just thereby we wonder at the meaning of the image created by the Dardennes. In the terms suggested above, we wonder about the point of showing this to us.

The gesture is strange beyond the fact that the woman immediately and unreflectively transcends any concern for her property. For one thing, when her hand meets his, there is no recoil, no expression of surprise, only a slight pause before she draws his hand upward. One might even think that she knew he was there, alerted perhaps by the pickpocket’s own recoil a few seconds earlier, but, perhaps, she is so engrossed in, moved by, inspired by, the film that she does not care. Secondly—and this is the most remarkable of all—she does not look at the boy whose hand she touches; does not even look down. This intensifies our sense of her immediate need for comfort, a need for some intimate contact with another that is so great that she ignores completely the injury done to her, much as Balthasar endures what is done to him, simply bears it. (There is a slight suggestion in her gesture that she is “asking” to be stroked and petted; comforted that way.) Not looking at him also intensifies our sense that she may have known, accepted, that he was there. (She does not need to look at him.)

Part of the point of being shown this must have to do with the compressed, triple homage to Bresson, and so, I suggested earlier, suggests an association with Bresson’s thematic interests. That is, two other of his films are invoked besides Au hasard Balthasar. The Pickpocket, of course, from 1959, and also the kind of tension and visual detail calls to mind A Man Escaped from 1956. The closing scenes are the ones invoked, where the captured resistance fighter Fontaine makes his escape from a Gestapo prison with a young boy whom he barely knows but whom, again in a momentary decision based more on faith than rational assessment, he has decided to trust. Another epiphanic moment.

Here is a scene that typifies what the Dardennes are referring to. The emphasis on the hands, stealth, anxiety at being discovered, and movement in the dark are all rhymed in the short film.

But The Pickpocket is more directly quoted, as it were. Pickpocketing is treated there as a kind of abstract image of what it is to wrong someone, to violate the boundaries of a person in the service of one’s one interest. At the end of the film, the girl we see, Jeanne, and the pickpocket Michel, had never been able truly to “find” each other until Michael accepts the baseness of his criminality and Jeanne can forgive him for it, but again in an epiphanic, sudden, not thought out or deliberated gesture, and one that involves the caressing of hands. This is a montage that shows first the scene illustrating their craft and when he is caught, and then cuts to the very end of the film.

Both of these referenced films involve the decisive, epiphanic moments we see in Dans l’Obscurité. In A Man Escaped, Fontaine cannot break free by himself. (And breaking free has of course a religious dimension as well, breaking free from the venality and corruption of the fallen world.) But to succeed, he must trust a new prisoner brought into his cell, a boy wearing a German soldier’s jacket, just to make the choice all the harder. There is no way, no time even, for such trust to have a deliberated, rational basis, but neither is it willful or arbitrary. Likewise, the mutuality achieved by Michel and Jeanne cannot be described as a “decision,” an intentional choice preceded and accompanied by reflected beliefs and desires; yet neither is it some sort of blind leap into the abyss. Accordingly, the somewhat neutralized, flat affect, the extremely minimalist expressiveness that is a feature of Bresson’s directorial style is not a mere technical quirk. It reflects his distrust of what he calls “psychological” acting (typified in the extreme by “method acting”), and this distrust is in turn philosophically motivated, since he clearly does not trust our deliberation and resulting self-avowals or even our emotional expressiveness to be the sort of mindedness actually relevant to important actions like trust, love, and forgiveness. In Bresson’s films, those self-avowals are almost always tangles of a self-deceit motivated by an inescapable vanity. Disabusing ourselves somehow of our misplaced faith in our putative power over what has come to matter to us, what ceases to matter to us, is the major step in Bressonian redemption.

This is why Balthasar’s mindedness in effect makes sense to us, and why it is an appropriate echo for what the brothers have shown us in their short. It seems to involve a pre-deliberative and distinct and potentially morally transformative form of intelligibility, a silent presence of an invisible meaning, that we accept not only in other characters, in what we can and cannot see in their faces, but also in the distinct visual sense moving images can make. Consider how far Bresson is willing to go in affirming the legibility of this form of mindedness in the faces of animals, as in this extraordinary scene of reflected gazes. Balthasar has been sold to a circus and this is his introduction to the other animals, culminating a riveting “exchange,” one has to call I, with an elephant. Clearly, we are meant to see how much pre-discursive meaning can go on

Finally we come to the scene that the girl in the theater is watching, the end of Au hasard Balthasar. Let me note two further things about the woman’s gesture in the short, caressing her face with the boy’s hand. Like all the Dardenne films, it figures an epiphanic, prediscursive moment, contrary to normal, let us say, rational expectations. The boy is trying to steal her money and she responds with a gesture of tenderness, clearly some sort of Christian theme. I have implied that this has something to do with what appear to be references to some sort of “animal-like, but moral sensibility” suggested by Bresson and echoed by the Dardennes. That suggestion points to a sensibility responsive to moral injury and injustice, but in a way that involves considerably more than what is classified by philosophers as “moral sentimentalism.” That “more” has to do with more than one’s own suffering or discomfort at the suffering of others, but the establishment of some connection with the other, some genuine intersubjectivity (figured mysteriously in the “communication” between Balthasar and the other animals). The viewer of the film is affected by the movie; it moves her. But she also takes something from it. As noted before, she reaches for the boy’s hand as if she expected it; does not recoil, but “brings” him to her. Moreover, while we naturally tend to think that she is weeping with sadness at the death of Balthasar, it is quite probable as well that she is weeping at the unrelieved selfishness and brutal cruelty that has seemed so typical of the human species throughout the film. Sorrow about our sorry state might also have prompted this sudden and clearly forgiving gesture. Gestural meaning is non-discursive, so it could by motivated by both reactions.

This moment is also not the result of any choice or decision in the standard sense, but seems unmistakably prompted by the film about the suffering of the innocent Balthasar. This involves the second point. The gesture brings together three dimensions of meaning: the religious meaning of Bresson’s film, the “social meaning of film,” what a film can be said to do to us, displayed to an audience “in the real world,” and the general theme of aesthetic intelligibility and what we might call aesthetic force. The film Balthasar is so overwhelming, it is the occasion for this woman of this moment of grace, a transcendence of ego, property, money, so many of the poisonous elements of modernity. So what is that? The film’s reaching her? Breaching the wall between the film and “reality”? The woman is changed by the film, we should assume, at least momentarily. What kind of change is that? What kind should we expect from art?

None of this, I hasten to add, should be taken to suggest that our moral lives are to be understood as consisting of nothing but epiphanic moments, expressive moments of great emotional power, intimating a rationally inarticulable but deeply real bond, unity or even identity with other persons. Perhaps the Dardenne brothers believe this. I am not sure. But I certainly don’t. It would be fair enough to suggest that we ought to be wary of wholly discursive accounts of the basis of our moral concerns, as if such bonds or claims are the product of arguments, or even more naively, the force of the better argument. Indeed, given the sensibility of their films, one could say that if someone thinks that what we need in the face of the suffering of others, especially suffering directly or indirectly caused by us, are arguments about why we ought to respond, then something has already gone haywire. On the other hand we know that cinematic conviction can be at least temporarily created for any sort of content. And that means that it cannot be the film alone than should be said to be the bearer of some sort of philosophical intelligibility, but the film and the “reading” it is given, a reading which, because articulate, can both be disputed as a reading and as a claim on our moral attention.

To demonstrate one last time that the epiphanic insight created in the film for this character can be just as powerful an epiphany for us, the viewers, I think we should see the final two minutes, forty-eight seconds of the film that produced the reaction in the woman in the short, the end of Au hasard Bathasar. (I will close with this clip. It says more than I could.) I think one needs to see the whole film to appreciate how deep the pathos in the Balthasar ending scene goes, but it is plenty deep just in the scene itself. Balthasar has been stolen by some rogue youths to carry contraband across the mountains in a smuggling deal they have arranged. They are seen by the border police, who give chase and fire their weapons at the smugglers, hitting Balthasar. We do not see, but “feel” Bathasar shot by the customs police shooting at the fleeing smugglers. (You will see a slight flinch, and shortly thereafter see the blood flowing out of him.) Then Balthasar makes his way into a crowd of sheep, as if seeking comfort from his animal brethren, and he receives that comfort. They gather around him in a beautiful scene of silent communion, and then, as he dies, they withdraw in a kind of gesture of respect. We are thus left with a sense of the solidarity and communion possible at least among the animals, one that contrasts brutally with the human world we have just seen. This extraordinary death is what inspires the stunning gesture of acceptance and tenderness by the woman in the Dardenne short, a gesture the rich meaning of which, I have been suggesting, figures for us the richness of meaning born by the art object which represents it.


1. George Wilson, Seeing Fictions in Film: The Epistemology of Movies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
2. Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Motion Pictures (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 155. There is also no “instruction” to “imagine” something, and we are not, by seeing shots, seeing signs or elements of language that we need to assemble according to some conceptual code.
3. For a fuller discussion, see my “Psychology Degree Zero. On the Representation of Action in the Films of the Dardenne Brothers,” in Critical Inquiry 41 (Summer 2015).
4. See Martin O’Shaughnessy, The New Face of Political Cinema: Commitment in French Film since 1995 (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2007), 73. It is significant with respect to the issue of class analysis and class consciousness in the brothers’ view of late capitalism, that Rosetta is not “a working-class woman.” She is struggling desperately to enter the working-class, however exploited it is on traditional accounts. “Wage slavery” has become a utopian dream. Classlessness is the feature of this new world that they focus on; hence the appropriateness of the term “underclass.” This is also prominent in The Promise, the classless status of the couple in The Child and of the ambiguous working class status of Lorna in The Silence of Lorna.