Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne began making short video documentaries together in the 1970s, and then shot their first fiction film in 1987, Falsch (False), in which the ghosts of a Jewish family, reunited after World War II in a deserted airport, are forced to deal with their past. The work is atypical for the Dardenne brothers in that it is highly stylized, with vibrant colors and theatrical staging, and while it is an excellent film, it does not really anticipate their later work. Their second film, Je pense à vous (You’re on My Mind, 1992), is also a surprise, in its narrative of a factory worker photographed with conventional cinematic imagery, using crane shots, a sweeping music track, and rather contrived performances.
However, the Dardennes’ La Promesse (The Promise, 1996), a handheld documentary-like tale of a man and his young son who are engaged in an illegal immigration scheme in contemporary Belgium, hit a nerve with audiences and critics alike, confirming that the brothers had returned to their bare-bones roots. This was followed by the equally compelling Rosetta (1999), about a young girl who lives with her alcoholic mother and is desperate to hang onto her job. Gritty and uncompromising, the film follows the characters at very close range for an unsettling cinéma vérité feel that keeps viewers continually off balance. In 2005, the brothers completed L’En-fant (The Child), in which a desperate young father sells his infant son for cash because he lives in a world in which everything is for sale. When the father changes his mind and retrieves the child, he finds that his complications have only begun.