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Double-Act: Acclaimed directors, the Dardenne siblings, talk brotherhood

CANNES, France - Grey, wispy-haired Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are more than just brothers born three years apart.

The acclaimed Belgian directors, whose film "Two Days, One Night" lit up this year's Cannes Film Festival, are also two cogs in the same creative machine, first fused together by their opposition to their religious father and now incapable of working apart.

"At the start we thought, practically, that if one is ill for a week, it's good as the other can continue working. But this isn't true. We need each other for it," says Jean-Pierre, 63.

Luc, 60, goes further.

"It's a little psychological. That we are brothers that work together, it's linked to our father. We opposed him a lot together when we were growing up over his morality, religion. It cemented us more than we think," he says.

Whatever the reason, their cinematic synthesis has worked with great success — the duo already have two Palmes d'Or under their belt since they first teamed up in 1978. The first winner was 1999's "Rosetta," about a 17-year-old girl, played by first-time actress Emilie Dequenne, who tried to escape her alcoholic mother. The second was 2005's "The Child" — a tale of an adolescent father who wants to give up his baby.

But this year's gritty "Two Days, One Night," which features a tour-de-force performance by Marion Cotillard as Sandra — a desperate and depressed mother of two trying to save her job at a solar-panel factory — could well hand the brothers a record-breaking third.

The message of the film, in which Cotillard's Sandra tries to convince her 12 co-workers to forfeit their 1,000 euro bonus to save her job, is at heart a philosophical exploration of human solidarity versus self-interest.

A similar philosophical strand runs throughout their body of work, which spans 10 features and numerous documentaries over four decades.

And it's little wonder. Luc studied philosophy, while Jean-Pierre took drama.

The brothers' work has never strayed far from home (or autobiography). Both the fraught father-figure and the setting of their hometown, the deprived Belgian city of Liege, recur within their work.

The bond between father and child featured strongly in "The Child," but also crops up in this year's offering, in which a dad literally comes to blows with his son over whether or not they should give up the bonus selflessly.

This time around the father is the virtuous character.

"We at first wanted the son to say "Yes", and the father "No" (to helping Sandra). But we didn't want to condemn the father in the film this time. We've already condemned too many fathers in our films! We felt bad. It's a father-rehabilitation," says Luc.

Still, the movie's backdrop — the working-class, industrial landscape — draws from their childhood. "Two Days, One Night," like many of their features, is set in Seraing, a poor town near Liege.

"A part of us of our childhood never really left this area," says Luc.

Liege became internationally known for all the wrong reasons —for poverty, serial killers and child-molesters, such as the infamous pedophile and convicted '90s murderer Marc Dutroux.

Luc said he felt for the region's plight, and that its loneliness inspired much of the brothers' work.

"The solitude in our films comes from this backdrop. There has been a bit of a shock, there was a crisis of the late 70s. The station disappeared, trains disappeared, the town emptied itself, town bustle died, it's full of lonely adolescents. From 100 shops there are three or four left," he says.

But what is striking about the brothers is a lack of (over)sentimentality.

"We never want to be angelic, naive in human relations," says Luc, as Jean-Pierre nods. "Our work, it's about being real."


Thomas Adamson can be followed at

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