November 14, 1997 in Seven

‘La Promesse’ Comes Through On Its Promise

William Arnold Seattle Post-Intelligencer

‘La Promesse” is a true sleeper: a movie that delivers much more than its credits and premise seem to promise.

The French language drama is about Igor (Jeremie Remier), a basically immoral 15-year-old Belgian lad who works sporadically in a Liege gas station where he always seems polite and helpful, but is actually forever engaging in some act of larceny. He steals the handbags of elderly lady customers or engages in some other nefarious sleight-of-hand.

His sociological excuse is that he has just about the worst imaginable family example. His overbearing but affectionate father (Olivier Gourmet) is not just a crook but something far worse: a smuggler of human beings who sneaks illegal aliens into Belgium and then ruthlessly exploits them in his construction business.

When one of the family’s African illegals (Rasmane Ouedraogo) has a fatal accident on the job, the dying man asks the boy to promise to take care of his wife and infant child, who have just arrived from West Africa and will be utterly lost without a provider.

In the rush of the moment, the boy agrees. At first, his promise is insincere and meaningless. But gradually - as it becomes clear his father intends to sell the widow (Assita Ouedraogo) and her baby to a Hamburg brothel - it changes him, and finally pushes him toward an open rebellion with his whole life.

As directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the film has a jerky, hand-held style that at first seems slapdash and rather off-putting, but eventually works perfectly, giving it a unique sense of immediacy and documentary realism. Renier’s performance is always just right, and his transformation is handled so skillfully and so subtly that “La Promesse” sneaks up on you.


“La Promesse”

Location: Lincoln Heights

Credits: Directed and written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, starring Jeremie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo

Running time: 1:33

Rating: Unrated (sexual situations, profanity)

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