Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne set a new personal record on the set of Two Days, One Night, clocking 82 takes for a single scene.
In critical circles, the Belgian brothers rank easily among the most respected filmmakers working today. In 2005 they won their second Palm d'Or, for The Child – only six other directors have scooped the top prize at Cannes twice.
Writing, producing and directing all their works together, the pair make one kind of movie – French-language, working-class dramas set in and around their home province of Liège. “Le cinéma des frères Dardenne” is hailed for being many things – naturalistic, moving, moralist – but one thing it never feels is staged or false.
They started out as documentary makers, and each of their nine feature films is lent a claustrophobic sense of social realism, created by the use of shaky hand-held cameras, location shooting and the frequent use of first-time actors.
But their approach is far from spontaneous, says long-time collaborator Fabrizio Rongione, who has appeared in five of the brothers’s films in the past 15 years.
“With the Dardennes, at the first take you have to try something – say holding a glass – and if they like it, you have to repeat it 80 times,” says the Belgian-Italian actor. “And this is a little bit difficult, because as an actor you like to change – after five or six takes you like to try it without the glass.”
In the past year a wider audience has begun to discover the Dardennes's work. After close to three decades of casting relative unknowns, in 2014 the brothers expanded their appeal beyond the art-houses by recruiting A-list actress Marion Cotillard to star in Two Days, One Night.
Offering a stunning performance hailed by many as her best, the French Academy Award winner plays Sandra, a factory worker threated with redundancy who can only save her job by convincing her co-workers to pass up their bonus payments.
A universal tale of resilience and humanity, since premièring at Cannes in May 2014 the film has won several awards and earned five-star reviews.
Sandra steadfast saviour, her husband Manu, is played by 41-year-old Rongione.
“She’s a beautiful woman,” says Rongione with a typical Italian flair. But he revealed that she found the exhaustive Dardenne filming process a challenge – but ultimately very rewarding.
“Being the first time she had worked with them, she was a little bit stressed out,” he says. “She had never worked like this in her career.
“But on set she told me that it was her best experience of acting. The Dardennes took her really far away – with the brothers you have to work, there’s a lot of scenes and takes. They are looking for something, they don’t know what, or maybe they know and they don’t tell the actors.”
There is perhaps no one better placed to comment on the Dardennes’s working methods than Rongione, who has enjoyed incredible loyalty from the brothers, appearing in five of their six most recent films.
A theatre actor by trade, he made his first big-screen appearance in 1999's Rosetta, which earned the brothers their first Palm d'Or. He has since worked with them on The Infant (2005), Lorna's Silence (2008) and The Kid With a Bike (2011).
“I have been thinking since Rosetta that they would never, ever call me again, and after each movie I think this is the last time,” says Rongione.
“Maybe today, from the last film, I finally understand what they’re looking for [with so many takes] – the perfect match of the movement of the actor, and the movement of the camera. For me, this is the Dardennes’ cinema – the choreography of these two bodies.”
The key to obtaining this match is offering the actors little direction and zero backstory. Instead of discussing cinema, they restrict their conversations with Rongione to football.
“They don’t want actors to think too much – when an actor thinks, it becomes impossible to play,” he says. “You have to like the fact that you can’t control yourself, that you’re not thinking – but an actor is a human being so, it’s not so easy to forget yourself.
“When you do forget yourself, your body moves in a different way, and the emotions that you can present are something you would never, ever have thought about. This is what the Dardennes are looking for.”
The brothers’ perfectionism isn’t the only surprise Rongione reveals. They would also, he says, love to shoot a comedy. At first I think that he is joking – but it seems not.
“They would love to try comedy once, but they can’t,” he says. “Luc Dardenne told me that every time they sit down to write a comedy, after two sentences, they are into a drama.”
Rongione came to the 2014 Abu Dhabi Film Festival for the Middle Eastern premières of Two Days, One Night and another equally incredible picture, La Sapienza.
He wound up with a starring role in the latter, from French-American filmmaker Eugène Green, after being introduced to him by (you guessed it) a certain pair of Belgian brothers, after the Dardennes co-produced Green's second feature, 2003's The Living World.
“Ten years after that, he called me,” says Rongione. “I don’t know why, but he didn’t forget me.”
Stylistically, the movies couldn’t be more different, the Dardennes’ hand-held realism the conceptual antithesis of Green’s painterly surrealism.
Where the brothers’ camera shakes moodily, Green’s hangs statically for minutes at a time, soaking up architectural beauty and blank faces alike. Vast chunks of film are set aside for intense close-ups, with the actors left to impart philosophical phrases and dense dialogue straight into the lens.
“With Eugene Green you have to be like a painting – it’s not realistic,” says Rongione. “And you have to look in the camera. As an actor, the first thing you learn is not to look in the camera. It’s very hard.”
Looming large among the myriad metaphysical themes of La Sapienza (literal translation: Perfect Knowledge) – which is set mainly in Stresa and Rome, and performed in a mix of French and Italian – is beauty. Renaissance painting, sculpture and architecture – the work of Borromini in particular – play a large role in the movie. Much screen time is also devoted to reverential, picture-postcard shots of architectural wonders.
Despite living all his life in Brussels, Rongione is passionate about the historic achievements of the country his parents call home, but expresses disgust at what he calls “contemporary” Italy.
“With Italy, you always have the best you can see, and the worst you can see – in Rome you can see the Pantheon, and at the same time, there’s Berlusconi, corruption, the worst of a society.” Mid-conversation he starts physically shaking in anger. “I love Italy so much, I can’t actually cope to see the current situation.”
At this point the conversation naturally turns to the The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino's 2013 masterful, Technicolor take on the vacuity of Rome's monied classes, a grotesque Fellini homage that scooped 2014's Best Foreign Film Oscar.
"The Great Beauty is a total paradox," says Rongione. "Italy has been killing cinema production – this is the great ugliness.
"When The Great Beauty got the Oscar they celebrated [in Italy], and I think all Italians should be ashamed because this movie is so realistic [in showing] what Italy is like today," he says. "The whole country should be ashamed of being pictured like this, which is the reality – if you go to Rome and you are invited onto these terraces, this is the ambience, it's like a documentary.
“Italy is killing its culture,” he adds. “Italy has reached the bottom, so maybe from this bottom there can be a new wave – artistically, morally – there can be some renewal.”
Two Days, One Night is available on DVD now from www.amazon.co.uk.