La Promesse (Review)

(7 out of 10)
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Jeremie Remier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo
94 minutes


This is a well-made film by from Belgium. This is not for those who want an entertaining Hollywood film. On the other hand, the film has a straightforward, and simple story (so simple that it may not be interesting). On the other hand, I think the film can keep your interest and attention. Unless you have already decided to see this film, you might want to read a brief plot description below (which has no major spoilers) to make up your mind.

This is slow-paced drama about a boy, Igor (Jeremie Remier). Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), Igor’s dad, is a petty criminal with little or no qualms about his unscrupulous life and raises Igor with this attitude. The dramatic heart of the story revolves around one question: will the boy keep a promise despite significant obstacles?

If you need more convincing, let me tell you the aspects of the film I liked (but this reveals more about the film). I liked the way the filmmakers create suspense and dramatic tension. We are not talking Hitchcock thriller or James L. Brooks melodrama, but more like suspense in a neo-realistic style (similar to a documentary). In the end, the film is about raising questions about moral decisions and getting the audience to draw their own conclusions from this. This made the film interesting, more than the characters, dialogue, acting or visuals. The following review goes into this in more detail as well as the reasons I did not give this film a higher score.

(Note: The Dardennes have also directed a highly acclaimed film called, The Son. If you liked La Promesse, I would recommend seeing The Son. If you have not seen either film, but want to, be sure to see La Promesse first.)


The film reminded me of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I view both as stories about universal morals. Igor, the son, reminds me of Raskolnikov in that both characters cannot escape from their conscience. However, in Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov blatantly challenges the notion of universal morals (and the existence of God) by killing an old woman for no reason. In La Promesse, on the other hand, Igor does not challenge the idea of universal morals, but his upbringing does. Furthermore, in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevksy shows us the punishing psychological consequences of Raskolnikov’s act. In La Promesse, the Dardenne brothers want the audience to judge Igor’s decisions.

The dramatic success of the film rests largely on the shoulders of the Remier’s portrayal of Igor. The main conflict occurs inside of his character. While I found his acting sufficient, I didn’y think it was good enough to take this film to the next level. I wasn’t convinced or satisfied with the intense conflict he was ostensibly going through. How do actors show this inner turmoil in subtle ways? I believe the great actors have an incredible ability to use their faces and eyes that allow audiences to know what they are feeling or thinking without saying a word (or without overdramatic gestures or expressions). I didn’t see those thoughts and feelings on Remier’s face, and perhaps that is expecting too much from a young actor. I just feel like that is the kind of acting I needed to see to make this film a really great one. On the other hand, perhaps, I failed to fully appreciate his acting.

I had no complaints about Gourmet as the immoral father, Olivier. He has this look and aura that make him appear capable of the most disturbing and heinous acts, a soft, yet creepy look. Several displays of violence also puts the audience on edge in the way an actor like DeNiro or Nicholson would.

This vibe also makes his lifestyle and the way he raises Igor more believable. He has no qualms about suggesting and getting a prostitute for his son; he buries an injured man that they could have saved; he not only refers to the man’s wife, Assita, racial epithets, but he uses any devious means to get her and her baby out of the apartment.

At the same time Oliver seems to have a very affectionate relationship with Igor (as the karaoke scene demonstrates), and we see that Igor both cares about his father and fears him. Gourmet makes this tender side believable as well, but both actors do a good job of making the bond convincing. This bond is crucial for dramatic tension and suspense in the film. Olivier wants to get rid of Assita and wants Igor to not get involved. In order to keep his promise to the dying man, Igor must defy his father–both risking his wrath as well as going against a person that is important to him. Will he defy his father and help Assita? If so, will he adandon her at some point? Will he tell her the truth about her husband? What adds to the uncertainty is that the filmmakers have established Igor as a person with little character: he has no problem stealing the pension of an old woman, while at work! He also leaves work or comes to work early because of his father, which shows his bond with his father as well as a lack of respect for the boss. Because of these factors, when Igor must face moral choices we do not know which decisions he will make.

We finally get to see Igor telling Assita the truth about what happened to her husband, but the reaction of both Assita and Igor is unclear. Was Assita mad at Igor, or was she thankful for Igor’s decision? Did Igor feel good or bad about his decision? Should these questions matter? In a way I think these questions are irrelevant to the rightness or wrongness of Igor’s decisions (helping Assita, and telling her the truth). When we face moral dilemmas we must often decide without the foreknowledge of consequence of those decisions. The ambiguous ending focuses the audience on Igor’s decision without knowing the reaction and consequence of his decision. Furthermore, answering these questions would be an imposition of the filmmaker’s views and would let the audience off the hook. A happy or unhappy resolution tells the audience what to think about Igor’s decisions. Not providing answers to these questions, forces the audience to make up their own mind, and I liked that.

However, while a less ambiguous resolution would not have satisfied me more, the end seems anti-climatic–Is that it–was the feeling I got. The story and the message seem so simple and obvious. I may feel this way because the dilemma is a no-brainer for me. I felt the moral choice was clear. On the other hand, all of Igor’s decisions may not be unambiguous (for example, telling Assita the truth), especially for different people. The value of the film resides in its ability to generate discussion and thought about moral decisions, especially if this leads to new insights. My dissatisfaction stems from the fact that I felt the film did not lead to any new insights about these moral issues.

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