Marketing a Cinema of a Small Nation

Belgium highlights a crucial dichotomy in the types of films produced in each linguistic region. The cinema of Wallonia has a certain tendency to launch itself on the international stage, and in particular at the Cannes film festival.

‘Résister jusqu’à la dernière énergie au destin de l’œuvre d’art, à la puissance sourde qui raidit, bouche, emmure, étouffe, embaume. La lutte avec ce destin signe la véritable œuvre d’art’[Resist, with all your energy, the destiny of the work of art, resist the silent power that tightens, blocks, confines, chokes, embalms. The struggle with this fate marks the true work of art.](L. Dardenne, 2008: 9 – from Au dos de nos images)

This extract is derived from the opening journal entry in Au dos de nos images by Luc Dardenne, and opens with the word ‘resist’. The concept of resistance is prevalent within the auteurs’ corpus of films, but, within this context, the filmmaker is displaying a resistance to the power of mainstream cinema. Resisting the mainstream force, which chokes the cinema market, facilitates the creation of true works of art. After having castigated and pungently criticised the mainstream cinema as containing ‘aucune ombre réelle, aucun mystère, aucune densité, aucune contradiction’ [no real shadows, no mystery, no (emotional) density and no contradiction] (L. Dardenne, 2008: 15), he asks ‘qu’est-ce qui refuse, résiste, lutte contre cette expression?’ [What refuses, resists, and struggles against this expression?] (L. Dardenne, 2008: 15). The answer is the art-house cinema model and a cinema predicated upon auteurist pretences.

The concept of the transnational has different currencies at different points in time, for example, in the case of the remake, art-house cinema and cult cinema. The Belgian ‘national’ product is difficult to export, due to the bilingualism of the nation, with ‘the few actual successes coming from films which use the European auteur or art-cinema models (such as Von Dormael’s Toto le héros in 1993)’ (Fowler, 1998: 221). This assertion, that the Belgian national cinema product can only be successful when drawing upon auteurism, represents a mutating currency of the transnational. The example utilized pertains to the Flemish Belgian filmmaker Von Dormael, but it is possible to extend this European auteurist framework to the Dardenne Brothers. In this transnational context, the auteur is charged with the power to represent the national identity or, in the case of the Dardenne Brothers, the identity of the French community of Belgium. Although the examples of Von Dormael and the Dardenne Brothers are united by means of the European cinema d’auteur tradition, it is necessary to state a distinction between the two filmmakers. Von Dormael draws upon the Flemish historic cinematic tradition of magic realism, whereas the Dardenne Brothers emanate from the documentary tradition.

The marketing, in the case of the Dardenne Brothers, is achieved through the successes at films festivals, in particular the Cannes film festivals. The nominations of the films, for transnational awards across the border in France, serve to garner worldwide attention and recognition for the Dardenne Brothers’ corpus of works. Film festivals function as a space of artistic and cultural exhibition, since ‘film festivals are usually instigated by the desire to represent certain types of distinctly ethnic, national, or identitiarian communities in their cultural specificity’ (Erza and Rowden, 2006: 3). The true artistic and cultural value of the works of the Dardenne Brothers can therefore be realized within the space of the film festival. Luc Dardenne (2006) acknowledges the significance of the film festival as crucial for marketing purposes, since ‘we do not have a publicity machine with us to accompany our films…so for us the festival is a springboard to get across to people like you, journalists, critics who pass the films onto their audiences…Without Cannes, it would be much harder for our films to get seen by audiences’ (L. Dardenne, At the Movies, 2006). According to the Dardenne Brothers, the film festival circuit is thus a fundamental component in their marketing machine, distributing the films by means of critical acclaim.

However, it is also a salient issue to address the risks of marketing and promoting the cinematic products in this manner, since ‘the increasing visibility of film festivals and their growing impact on international circuits of distribution often serve to generalize the manifestly particularizing narratives that might actually be presented in the films themselves’ (Erza and Rowden, 2006: 3). The example of the 1999 Cannes film festival, in which the Dardenne Brothers won their first Palm d’Or for the film Rosetta, can be drawn upon. The 1999 Cannes film festival was placed at the centre of a discussion concerning the dichotomy between the mainstream cinema and the art-house cinema, which existed at the festival at the time. The successes at the festival were Rosetta by the Dardenne Brothers and L’Humanité/Humanity (Bruno Dumont, 1999), but the films were conflated and branded as ‘ils assassinent le cinéma’ [they murder cinema] in publications such as L’Evénement (Austin, 2004: 252) or championed in Cahiers du Cinema. The conflation of the two films together on the back of the festival generalised the key components of the films, grouping them together and obfuscating the particularised narratives that the films possess. The grouping of the Belgian film Rosetta with the French product L’Humanité consequently categorised the film within the sphere of the French wave of ‘New Realism’, erasing the national specificity from the work.  

The marketing of Belgian cinema is disguised through auteurist pretences and the success of the Belgian filmic product is achieved by means of obscuring the Belgian cultural identity and specificity, thereby creating a false sense of universalism of Western culture. The universal art-house cinema model is drawn upon in its search for populism and increased circulation and exhibition beyond the nation’s boundaries. The auteurist pretences denote a rebranding of the mainstream ‘national’ cinematic products for augmented exportation, and functions as a means of marketing the ‘national’ product as niche and diverse from the Hollywood force and mainstream dominant cinema.


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