Last month the novelist, screenwriter, and CounterPunch contributor Clancy Sigal, whose most recent book is the vital Hemingway Lives!, sent me the following vignette, a history lesson in the nearly unbreakable union between music and the movies:
David, As you know, Warner Bros all through its early history was a cheap studio, unlike MGM and Fox, and kept its locations to a minimum and if you watch an old WB movie, say one with Bogie, all you’ll hear is music to tell us what we should be feeling. Music on a constant loop. And one day, while working at Columbia, before they fired me, I was sitting in a projection room with the tyrant boss Harry Cohn watching rushes. Cohn fidgeted, bored, famously scratched his behind when he lost patience, and shouted, “Stinks! Put music under it!”
Had Cohn ever found himself watching the work of the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, he would have been howling from the get-go for musical underscoring—or more likely for the whole film to be immediately torched. In contrast to the Warner Brothers’ aesthetic of musical saturation, the Dardennes’ gripping, starkly realistic fictions are completely devoid of scored accompaniment held for more than a century to be to be a crucial cinematic accouterment.
Born of the musical backdrops for magic lantern shows and operas, the scores of the silent film era deployed the language of the tone poem and symphony to heighten the romance and horror flickering across the screen. It is no coincidence that the sinister tremolos and groping diminished harmonies of the Wolf’s Glen scene from Carl Maria von Weber’s Freischütz which premiered way back in 1821 became the standard stuff of filmic terror soon after another set of francophone brothers, the Lumières, invented the movies in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
Even when the moving pictures learned to talk the orchestral score remained, the images and dialogue deemed by studio heads from Hollywood to Babelsberg insufficient to convey to the audience the emotional charge of on-screen love, loss, fright and hope. Home, too, had its sound, cut from heavy symphonic fabric. Tara would be merely a Technicolor image of a plantation house were it not invested with majesty and longing by Max Steiner’s soaring strings and his most famous theme’s grandiloquent leap up the octave. Never mind that for his four-hour stopover in Dixie Steiner unpacked all the baggage of his native Vienna’s storied symphonic past.
For all the new instruments and musical technologies that have enriched soundtracks in more recent years, the cinema as a whole has refused to renounce this legacy, sometimes brilliant and effecting, but more often overbearing and trite.
Aside from guiding the emotions towards what is thought by moviemakers to be their proper destination, this music sends a more fundamental message: from the frivolous to the uplifting, movies are entertainment.
Such sonic luxuries and manipulations have neither geographic nor ethical place in the Dardennes’ films. They are too committed to chronicling the survival, dignity, and quest for justice of their characters on the post-industrial periphery. In derelict factories, underpasses, overcrowded buses, machine shops, freeway eateries, and cramped social housing units there are no drawing rooms with grand pianos and no concert halls with hundred-piece orchestras. There are no symphonies in these districts, nor can there be in the soundtrack.
These tales—simultaneously tragic and triumphant—practice skillful, poetic social critique. The harrowing Rosetta of 1999 followed a teenage girl trying to extricate herself from a trailer park and alcoholic mother. The film won for the Dardennes their first Palme d’Or and also led to legislation in Belgium ensuring a minimum wage for teens—a reform known fittingly as the Rosetta Law.
Equally as bleak, The Baby of 2004 concerned the sale by a junky of his newborn to an illegal adoption ring and his subsequent attempt to retrieve the child. It garnered the Dardennes their second Palme d’Or.
Both films were chosen by Belgium to represent the country at the Oscars for best foreign film, but neither was nominated by the obtuse Academy. Imagine an absurd scenario in which Harry Cohn were the Dardennes’ producer and sensed the possibility of winning the silly statue and thereby receiving a boost in receipts. The boss would have scratched his behind and demanded a soundtrack. I’d suspect that had the brothers made such a wrong-headed concession to cinematic convention they would have at least been in the running for those Oscars. The Belgians chose the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night this year, and were predictably snubbed by the Americans yet again.
The brothers’ latest film follows Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a mother of two young children, as she fights for a her job in a small firm producing solar panels in the Dardenne’s home city of Seraing just southwest of Liège. After Sandra has return to work after taking a sick-leave for depression, the company’s manager holds a vote among the sixteen other employees asking them to decide whether they should each receive a thousand-euro bonus or have Sandra laid off. If Sandra stays they do not get the extra money. The first ballot goes against her, but under pressure from a few of her sympathetic co-workers, a new vote is granted for Monday. Fighting demons of doubt and illness, Sandra has the courage to try and visit all of the other employees over the weekend to ask them to let her keep her job. If the vote goes against her she will be evicted from her modest row house and forced back to the projects.
The Dardennes’ is not a cinema of establishing shots and grand Gone-With-the-Wind gestures: a secure job and viable social safety net has been blown away by the gusts of globalization. Instead we see close-up the remnants of urban life, industry, nature: parking lots; the entryway of an apartment block; and cramped views of working-class apartments; small stone alleys of an old town through which Sandra hunts for a co-worker pub; nature is seen in a fleeting shot of the broad River Meuse in its concrete walls; a rare respite from the concrete, asphalt, and rusted steel comes when Sandra trudges through grassy meadow bordering a new development of eco-friendly houses in the hills above Liège.
We hear no orchestral sonorities signifying despair or resolve, just the sounds of cars or sirens, people playing or arguing, the scrape of Sandra’s shoes on the pavement. At the risk of invoking a post-industrial version of the pathetic fallacy, I couldn’t help thinking that this sonic desert flecked with remnants of a disappearing natural world mirrored Sandra’s own inner-state and her own prospects.
Yet the movie is not denuded of all music. Sandra is driven to several of her destinations by her loving husband Manu (Fabrizio Mangione) and they listen to the radio in the car. When a pop ballad detailing the disappointments of life and love comes on, Manu’s right hand drifts from the steering wheel to turn the song off. Sandra accuses him of trying to shield her from the emotional power of this forlorn music. He feebly denies the accusation.
As the night falls on the weekend’s second day, Sandra and Manu have been joined in their small car by one of the coworkers for whom Sandra’s campaign has also had a sudden, life-changing impact. Van Morrison’s “Gloria” erupts from the speakers. All three declare their love for “rock” and then crank up the volume, singing along as they careen down the freeway towards the next morning’s vote: “Make me feel so good, Make me feel all right.” The song can do that, but only as long as it lasts.
Both these scenes are imaginative honest and touching encounters with real movie music.
The paradoxical miracle of the Dardennes’ art is that they are somehow able to engineer unexpected ethical victories—though often Pyrrhic—for their protagonists. They know that they would not succeed in this if they were to defer moral judgments and emotional insights to an unseen conductor and orchestra or studio music editor at his controls. When the screen goes black after Sandra has learned the result of her canvassing, the credits are projected and we continue to hear the distant whirr of traffic and the song of a blackbird in the industrial park. At the end of another unforgettable Dardenne film, we are forced to listen, again, to our own hearts.
DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org