La Promesse is the story of a teenage boy who learns that his father is not a very ideal role model. Released in 1996, this French film was written and directed by brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The Criterion Collection has released the film on Blu-ray and it’s not hard to see why they chose to showcase it. From the naturalistic performances to the grimy atmosphere, La Promesse feels authentic and is deeply thoughtful.
Roger (Olivier Gourmet) is a slumlord who exploits illegal immigrants who he sneaks into his working class French neighborhood. He hasn’t a shred of sympathy for these people. He takes their money, renting them rooms in a building fouled by the stench of a broken sewage pipe. He employs them to work construction jobs for his benefit, underpaying them as much as he can get away with. His young teenage son Igor (Jérémie Renier) is his protégé. When we first meet Igor, he is ripping off an old lady who just collected her pension.
Roger and Igor have a very curiously detached relationship. Roger insists his son address him by his first name, rather than “dad” or any similar variation. Igor obeys his strict disciplinarian father, while also following close in his footsteps. These immigrants aren’t really people to them, but instead just a means to earn money in the most unscrupulous of ways. After carefully establishing a generally depressing milieu, the Dardenne brothers introduce the main thrust of the story. One of Roger’s workers, Amidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), seriously injures himself at the work site during an unexpected raid by immigration authorities. Igor instinctively tries to help Amidou, who is in dire need of medical attention, but his father decides they will leave the man for dead and dispose of the body.
Unbeknownst to Roger, Amidou’s dying request of Igor is that the boy sees to it that the wife and child he is leaving behind are taken care of. Igor’s affirmative response is the “promise” of the film’s title, and the beginning of a major change in his outlook. To explain any further about the actions of these characters would be an injustice to the film. Not to suggest this is a suspense film with twists and turns, but honestly this is a very modest story. Its richness comes from details that are difficult to convey in a plot summary. La Promesse is the journey of young person struggling to let his conscious be his guide, despite the overpowering influence of a supremely self-serving parent.