The Crisis before the Crisis: Reading Films by Laurent Cantet and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne Through the Lens of Debt


The discussion that follows establishes a three-way conversation between two films, Laurent Cantet’s L’Emploi du temps (Time Out [2001]) and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence [2008]) and one work of theory, Maurizio Lazzarato’s La Fabrique de l’homme endetté: essai sur la condition néo-libérale (The Making of Indebted Man: Essay on the Neoliberal Condition [2011]). The subject of the conversation will be neo-liberal governance and the role of debt within it. Part of Lazzarato’s argument regards the central role debt has played since the start of the global financial crisis in 2008. But another part of his argument is that during the neo-liberal era, debt has been a, if not the, key element of governance. In what follows, I will suggest that the films in question already showed a highly developed awareness of this circumstance and preceded theory on the terrain. Cantet’s work from Ressources humaines (Human Resources [1999]) onwards, and with the possible exception of Vers le sud (Heading South [2005]) has always evidenced a desire to be contemporary to its moment. Entre les murs (The Class [2008]) provides a particularly telling account of some of the fault-lines in French society and contradictions of the French Republican education system. Ressources humaines and L’Emploi du temps form a diptych about the contemporary world of work that charts a shift from the stability of Fordist labor to something very different, but perhaps no less alienating. Like Cantet, the Dardenne brothers are moved by a determination to remain contemporary to their historic moment. Their films since La Promesse (The Promise [1996]) seem to be an affirmation, seen from the viewpoint of those at the bottom, or in terms of the murderousness of mainstream values, that the crisis had already been here for some time.

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