The Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have returned to the Cannes competition where they have won golden opinions over the decades: two Palmes d’Or (for Rosetta in 1999 and The Child in 2005) and other prizes including best screenplay for Lorna’s Silence in 2008, the Grand Prix for The Kid With The Bike in 2011, and best direction for Young Ahmed in 2019. But for me the dynamism of their work has fallen off in recent years, and there are sometimes issues with basic plot naivety and plausibility, for all the obvious research that has gone into their screenplays. In this film, for example – and not for the first time – the Dardennes include a bizarrely perfunctory “cosh” scene in which someone has to be rendered briefly unconscious, and this is achieved by hitting them once or twice over the head with something heavy, a trope that I thought had gone out with 70s kids’ TV. The ending itself is a bit naïve in its execution, though not in what it implies about the ruthlessness of people who exploit vulnerable immigrants.
Having said all this, I still responded to the heartbeat of idealism, urgency and force of this movie: a plain parable of inequality and injustice among the marginalised and dispossessed in the heart of western Europe. Given that so much cinema seems to be the creation of irony and indifference, the Dardennes are film-makers who believe that cinema should mean something and intervene in the real world. I was struck by the similarity of the Dardennes with the work of screenwriter Paul Laverty for Ken Loach, although I think without the Laverty/Loach streak of humour.
In modern-day Belgium, a young woman called Lokita (Mbundu Joely) and a boy called Tori (Pablo Schils), both from Benin, have endured a terrible journey to the promised land of the EU and are now in a children’s home for immigrants. To get their residence papers, they have to claim to be brother and sister; no great strain, because these young people are now as passionately close as any siblings. But bureaucracy and official suspicion wreck their dreams. Desperate for cash and still owing money to people traffickers, Tori gets a job selling drugs under cover of delivering pizzas and Lokita agrees to be taken blindfold by criminals to a secret cannabis farm, a truly terrifying place in the middle of nowhere. She is there locked in for three months tending the plants under the unbearably hot lights, with her phone taken away, on the promise of payment when the time is up.
Tori and Lokita are thus installed in various stages of the production and distribution chain for a particular commodity: an illegal one, as it happens, and they too are illegals. It is this general illegality which creates the market forces keeping Tori and Lokita obedient and scared workers, creating something that respectable and prosperous people want to buy as cheaply as possible. Tori’s passionate love for Lokita brings them back together — but triggers a disastrous chain of events.
There is some ungainliness in the dramatic language here and I have to admit to a restiveness about the Dardennes’ quasi-automatic selection to the Cannes competition. Are they becoming one of the silverback gorillas of Cannes, the established prizewinners who are allowed into competition on the basis of great work in the past, not good work in the present? Maybe. At all events, there is a simplicity and clarity of purpose here that I responded to and the Dardennes have got excellent performances from their young leads.
• Tori and Lokita screened at the Cannes film festival, and is released in cinemas on 2 December.