Moral Beauty in the Cinema of the Dardenne Brothers

Moral beauty is at the heart of the Dardenne brothers’ cinema. Its revelation is a structuring principle of their cinema. The unsentimental production of moral beauty is among their most important achievements. In this paper, I develop an argument for this set of claims and I offer an analysis of the concept of moral beauty using the films of the Dardenne brothers as my guide. I track the strategy of revealing moral beauty throughout their oeuvre and explore the features of their cinema that helps them avoid sentimental responses to their films.

The idea of moral beauty is deeply embedded in the western philosophical tradition. Its roots are found in Plato’s Symposium, where Plato has a character in the dialogue, Diotima, propose an account of the moral purpose of beauty. According to Diotima, love of physical beauty leads towards a love of beauty itself and thence to a love of the good itself. [1] Beauty itself (the form of beauty) and goodness itself (the form of goodness) are interrelated in Platonism. The fully beautiful cannot but be good and the fully good cannot but be beautiful. Commitment to moral beauty is subsequently found in the Neoplatonist philosophy of Plotinus and in the Christian tradition that developed from Platonism and Neoplatonism. It is also prominent in eighteenth-century discussion of virtues. Hutcheson, for example, claims that God has “made Virtue a lovely Form, to excite our pursuit of it”. [2] The idea of moral beauty largely fell into neglect following the eighteenth century, but it has recently been revived. Berys Gaut defends the reality of moral beauty and uses it to argue that the moral quality of works of art influence their aesthetic quality. [3]

I broadly agree with Gaut’s view of the reality and aesthetic significance of moral beauty, but I think his argument can be improved. [4] Gaut defends the idea of moral beauty by pointing out that we ordinarily use the term beauty to refer to good moral character or morally good action and arguing that there is no good reason to think that this usage is metaphorical. This dialectical strategy is unlikely to convince a sceptic. Daniel Jacobson offers the following sceptical response. Writing in response to Gaut, he says “… I am not convinced that to call someone’s character morally beautiful is anything more than to express one’s approval of it, which need not have any aesthetic purport”. [5] I think the best way to convince the sceptic is to give a careful analysis of the idea of moral beauty and show how it plays a fundamental role in the aesthetic strategy of important artists. To this end, in this paper, I discuss moral beauty in the cinema of the Dardenne brothers. Moral beauty, I claim, is at the heart of the Dardenne brothers’ cinema. Its revelation is a structuring principle of their cinema. The unsentimental production of moral beauty is among their most important achievements. I attempt to ground these claims by developing an analysis of moral beauty and showing how it illuminates the films of the Dardennes, from La promesse (1996) to Deux jours, une nuit (2014).

Moral beauty is well illustrated in the final moments of the Dardennes’ film Rosetta (1999). These moments portray little more than a change in facial expression, yet they are the culmination of the film’s narrative. Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) struggles for a social and economic position throughout most of the film’s action. Her struggle is not just for a job, but for a purposeful, socially normalised place to spend her time. She abandons hope of it under the withering moral attention of her rival, Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione). Rosetta has betrayed Riquet in order to take his job. They had been friends; he had been attentive and generous to her; they had danced together. After the betrayal, Riquet follows Rosetta, more it seems in a quest for answers than retribution. In the face of this, Rosetta abruptly gives up her prize, abandons her quest for social position, and abandons her life. Rosetta’s suicide attempt is, as so much else in her life, a matter of intense effort. She works to seal up the dilapidated caravan she shares with her mother, plugging gaps in the windows with newspaper. Her mother slumbers drunkenly in the corner. She turns on the gas and settles down to die (and kill) only to have the gas bottle run out before the task is completed. She sets to finishing the job. Implacably, calvarically, she carries the bottle through the trailer park to retrieve a new bottle. Riquet returns. The buzzing of his motorised bicycle dominates the soundtrack, becoming louder and ever more insistent: like an insect, like the unignorable sound of punishment.

The final scene of the film lasts one minute and ten seconds. It is a confrontation between Rosetta and Riquet and consists of four events. Rosetta, still carrying the gas bottle – full now and heavy – collapses in uncontrolled sobs. Riquet shuts off his bike; the buzzing stops. He helps Rosetta to her feet. Rosetta looks at him. It is an unguarded look: not calculating, not end-driven. It is the only time in the film that she looks at someone merely as one person looking at another: not seeing a threat, an obstacle or an opportunity, but a person. The scene conveys the transformative power of forgiveness. Riquet’s forgiveness of Rosetta is not represented explicitly. He says nothing. His face is unseen. He merely helps her to her feet. However, Riquet’s gesture is combined with the silencing of his bike and this is the silence of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not an act; it is the giving up of action and the abandonment of affect. It is a relinquishment of grievance and the Dardenne brothers represent it here through silence. The unignorable sound of punishment falls away and the film finishes with a close-up of Rosetta’s transformed face. Riquet’s action is at the periphery of the filmed event – we see only his back. It is not heroic or self-sacrificing; it requires no extraordinary virtue; it is – or it hints at – merely the relinquishing of grievance; it is the tentative welcoming back of a lost friend. It is morally beautiful.

What is Moral Beauty?
Let me take up the analytical question: what is moral beauty? Because beauty is best thought of as a response-dependent concept, the question is best answered in experiential terms. Instead of trying to characterise the presentational features of all and only evocations of moral beauty – a seemingly impossible task – consider a simpler question. What is it to experience moral beauty? There appears to be an internal relation between experiencing something as beautiful and taking pleasure in it and this also appears to hold true for moral beauty. The relation is hard to keep track of, however. Is it not possible to appreciate the beauty of a thing without enjoying it? In one sense, it is clearly possible to see that a thing is beautiful without taking pleasure in it. In another sense, to see that a thing is beautiful is not yet to experience its beauty. To experience its beauty is to appreciate – to be affected by – its beauty in some way, and the typical way of appreciating beauty is to take pleasure from it. What I am after, therefore, is a characterisation of the internal relation between appreciating beauty and experiencing pleasure, one that does not tie me to an implausible thesis about the necessity or inevitability of a pleasure response to beauty.

I suggest the following account. When we hold that a thing is beautiful, we understand that the thing is a fitting object of a beauty response. This is the propositional content of our assertion. When we experience a thing’s beauty, by contrast, we respond to the object as beautiful. The character of this response paradigmatically involves pleasure, though it can involve other affects as well. It can involve pain, desire, joy, relief, pity, and so on. Pleasure, though, is fundamental. A beautiful object experienced as beautiful may not always generate pleasure, but every failure of the pleasure response demands a special explanation. Experiencing a thing as beautiful involves taking pleasure in it except when particular, contextual factors intervene to prevent this. For example, I might find a thing beautiful, be moved by it, but feel pain rather than pleasure because of its sad associations for me. In this case, the special circumstances of my perception explain the failure of what would ordinarily be a pleasure response.

If this is true of beauty responses in general, it is also true of moral-beauty responses. To experience something as morally beautiful is – paradigmatically – to take pleasure in it. To understand moral beauty analytically, therefore, it is necessary to understand the nature of this pleasure response. Pleasure is taken in the representation of an action. For this to count as an experience of moral beauty, what must characterise the pleasure? What must characterise the mode in which pleasure is taken? I offer the following account. First, it is pleasure taken in a presentation of moral goodness. The pleasure-taker must have an antecedent understanding of moral goodness and perceive moral goodness in the action. (The idea here is compatible with there being numerous contested understandings of moral goodness.) Second, it is disinterested pleasure. The pleasure-taker must respond to the action independently of any benefit or gain she may acquire from it and independently of any concern for whether it is real or not. Third, it is compassionate pleasure. It is pleasure accompanied by compassion and good will towards the agent.

Lastly, there is a set of counterfactual dependencies in play here. Perception of moral goodness is counterfactually tied to the pleasure-taking of moral beauty. If it is to be an experience of moral beauty and not pleasure taken in some other way, then the pleasure must counterfactually depend upon a perception of moral goodness. If moral goodness is not perceived in the action, then this pleasure would not be taken. If it is still taken, then it has a foundation other than an experience of moral beauty. Such pleasures might, for example, be grounded in narrative satisfactions: the satisfaction of a mystery solved, a quest completed, a desire satisfied. Of course, there can be more than one kind of beauty represented in an event. A representation of action can be both physically beautiful and morally beautiful: a beautiful person acting beautifully, for example. In this case, pleasure responses are overdetermined and the counterfactual dependency between pleasure-taking and perceived goodness takes a different form. If non-moral beauty-adding properties were absent – if the face were not beautiful, the music not enchanting, the camera movements not elegant, and so on – would the action bring pleasure to the spectator? If the answer is yes, then the spectatorial response is, at least in part, a moral-beauty response. If the answer is no, then moral beauty is not part of the equation. Put simply, moral-beauty responses depend counterfactually on the perception of moral goodness and not on alternative beauty-adding properties.

This is too simple, however. I am trying to isolate the contribution non-moral kinds of beauty-adding property make to an experience of pleasure and distinguish it from the contribution made by a perception of moral goodness. However, some non-moral aesthetic properties of a presentation can undermine pleasure. Bad acting, for example, can distract us from what is represented and undermine the pleasure we might otherwise take in it. In this sense, we might say that good acting is a beauty-adding property and it affects an audience’s capacity to take pleasure from a representation of moral goodness. Without the good acting, pleasure might well be hard to come by. It is implausible to say that moral beauty is only experienced if pleasure is robustly independent of even something like good acting. To solve this problem, let me posit a class of aesthetic properties – I will call them distractors – whose absence undermines pleasure-taking in ordinary circumstances. In film, such things as bad acting, incompetent lighting, ugly inconsistent editing, and so on, typically distract an audience in such a way that their capacity to take pleasure in a scene is diminished or even undermined. Distractors tend to ruin scenes. [6] An otherwise pleasing scene is often made unpleasant by their presence. By contrast, beauty-adding properties, as I understand them, are properties that typically enhance pleasure. An otherwise pleasing scene is made yet more pleasant by their presence. The acting of a physically beautiful person is beauty-adding in this sense. By contrast, serviceable acting – acting that is not bad, acting that does not distract an audience – is not beauty-adding.

With this distinction in place we can summarise the counterfactual relationship between an experience of moral beauty and the instantiation of non-moral aesthetic properties. Moral-beauty responses depend counterfactually on the perception of moral goodness and not on beauty-adding properties, though they can (but needn’t) depend on the absence of distractors.

The remaining two conditions on the pleasures of moral beauty – that the pleasure be disinterested and compassionate – are also constrained counterfactually. Pleasure-taking must be disinterested, but what exactly does this amount to? I may, indeed, benefit from an act I perceive as morally beautiful. As a film spectator, I may benefit by having my projective desires satisfied, by being made happy by a happy ending. However, this kind of benefit is not to the point. The disinterest implicit in an experience of beauty does not imply an indifference to aesthetic satisfactions. It implies an independence from non-aesthetic rewards. A film producer, longing for at least the rudiments of a happy ending, all to the purpose of adding to her financial returns, has an interest in audiences being moved by the ending of a film. But even if the ending is morally beautiful, the producer’s pleasure in it, got in this way, is not the pleasure of moral beauty. Of course, even a film producer can experience the pleasures of moral beauty. The disinterest at stake in perceptions of beauty is not de facto disinterest, but counterfactual disinterest. Would the film producer still take pleasure in the film’s ending were she not to benefit financially from it? If the answer is yes, then, other things being equal, she would have experienced moral beauty. If no, then she has experienced some other – all too familiar – kind of pleasure.

Again, I think there is a counterfactual dependency at work in the relationship between compassion and pleasure. Were I to lack compassion towards an agent, were I to feel no pull of sympathy or good will towards him and yet take pleasure in his act, then my experience would not be one of moral beauty. I would be taking a different kind of pleasure in the spectacle before me. Moral beauty is a kind of compassionate pleasure; it is not pleasure contingently accompanied by compassion, separable from that compassion.

Let me illustrate this theory of moral beauty with the scene from Rosetta I described earlier. A spectator is apt to respond to the scene with pleasure. Without these final moments, watching the film would be a remorselessly distressing experience. Much of the pleasure is a kind of relief – on Rosetta’s behalf – that she has at last had an authentic personal encounter. It is combined with hope that she might overcome the isolation that her exclusions and social failures have wrought; that she will continue her life’s struggle but with a manageable purpose and a chance of success; that she will have a friend. This is a slender hope to be sure, but it is a source of spectator satisfactions nonetheless. Satisfactions like these account for much of typical spectator responses to the scene, but there is more going on. The figure of Riquet is at the centre of the action. He is the principal agent in the affair. He does not dominate the scene visually – Rosetta does – but he dominates it narratively and aurally. He is the one making a difference – and a lot of noise. As I interpreted the scene earlier, the sound of his motorised bicycle – an annoying buzzing sound; one that gets under the skin all too easily – represents the insistence of moral criticism. I called it the unignorable sound of punishment. Turning off his bike; stopping the sound; bending down to help Rosetta: this is an act of moral beauty. A competent and attentive spectator is likely to take pleasure in Riquet’s action, not just out of relief at Rosetta’s hopeful transformation. This fits the theory of moral beauty adumbrated above. The spectator’s pleasure is accompanied by a perception of moral goodness. Riquet’s act of forgiveness – assuming that we understand it as such – is a morally good act. Were we to interpret Riquet’s behaviour differently – were we to think of it as expressing vengeful contempt, for example – then any pleasure taken in his action would evaporate. We are not taking pleasure at the image on screen – at the sight of his back or at the mere absence of annoying sound. If we see moral beauty here, we take pleasure in the representation of a morally good act.

The resulting spectator pleasure is also compassionate pleasure: the spectator experiencing moral beauty both takes pleasure in Riquet’s act and feels good will towards him. (Riquet is an agent of Rosetta’s torment, but he is not an antagonist. He is a sympathetic character: one seeking to settle moral accounts, but not without just reason and not, it eventually appears, out of a longing for revenge). As spectators we are in a disinterested relationship with the affairs portrayed. Admittedly, we experience a benefit from the representation of the act: our narrative desires are satisfied; our care for Rosetta is attended to; our tension is (somewhat) relieved. But, as I argued above, these benefits do not undermine the sort of disinterest required for beauty-responses. As film spectators, we do not stand to benefit from Rosetta’s transformation outside of the narrative orbit of the film and the psychological economy of our response to it. For all of our realist engagement with it, it remains an exercise of fiction for us.

Moral Beauty as a Structuring Principle
Without exception, a revelation of moral beauty structures the narratives of the feature films of the Dardenne brothers. There have been various accounts of the moral character of the Dardennes’ cinema; a number are based on a Levinasian reading of their work. [7] Moral-political readings, such as Lauren Berlant’s discussion of “cruel optimism” [8] and moral-psychological readings, such as Pippin’s account of “psychology degree zero” [9] in their representation of action are also prominent. My account of moral beauty and its significance for their work is not a straightforward competitor of these readings. The idea that the Dardenne brothers’ films elicit moral-beauty responses and are organised around these elicitations is compatible with various interpretations of the nature of the moral good thus revealed and the political and psychological ambiguities and challenges that are represented along with them. I will argue for a central organising role of the elicitation of moral-beauty responses by accumulation. It is important for my argument that moral beauty plays a key role across the entirety of the Dardennes’ oeuvre. Thus I examine the central role of the revelation of moral beauty in each of the Dardenne brothers’ films 1996-2014.

In La promesse (1996), the sixteen-year-old protagonist Igor (Jérémie Renier) undergoes a moral transformation. The film’s narrative is structured around the need that Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) has, not just for protection, but for information about the fate of her missing husband. The primary moral tension Igor experiences revolves around the need to let Assita know of her husband’s fate. Igor is implicated in his death and its cover-up. The final scene of the film has Igor confessing to Assita even though there is no obvious benefit for anyone in his doing so, even though it will be painful and his future will be compromised. It is an act of moral integrity. The concluding shot has Assita and Igor walking away together, not speaking, but also not fighting, not separating. The film’s principal narrative satisfactions are furnished by this scene – and the pleasures to be got from it are moral pleasures.

The narrative structure of Le fils (2002) revolves around the seemingly irreconcilable relationship between a man and a boy – the murderer of the man’s son. Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) takes on Francis (Morgan Marinne) as an apprentice, withholding from him knowledge of their connection. The denouement of the film sees Olivier and Francis – now made aware of his danger – wrestling on the ground, in the forest, in a slew of leaves. Olivier appears to come close to murdering the boy, but relents. Again, it is the final scene of the film that furnishes its principal narrative satisfactions. After his near murder, after he has been left him on the ground in the forest, Francis returns to Olivier. They work together in silence, loading up a truck with planks of wood. Francis’s act of moral and personal courage – his act of trust and need – constitutes an act of moral beauty. It is this beauty that makes a dogged moral sense of Olivier’s attempts – his stumbling, inchoate attempts – to deal with his victimhood and the encounter with his son’s murderer.

The Dardenne brothers next film – L’enfant (2005) – culminates in acts of moral beauty, acts that make the preceding narrative a progression rather than a repetitive spectacle of moral error. In one act, Bruno (Jérémie Renier) at last takes responsibility for his actions, presenting himself to the police and helping out the boy he has involved in his petty crimes. In the other, Sonia (Déborah François) offers Bruno, now incarcerated, the gift of reconciliation – something undeserved and unearned.

Le silence de Lorna (2008) is the most ambiguous and challenging deployment of revelatory moral beauty in the Dardennes’ cinema. In this film, Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) emerges from selfish oblivion over the course of the narrative. This is initially provoked by the unexpected resilience of her husband Claudy Moreau (Jérémie Renier). Lorna is an Albanian national and she has married Claudy merely to gain citizenship papers; it is part of a plan to sell her citizenship on to a new Russian husband once Claudy dies. Claudy is meant to die of a long anticipated overdose. When he fails to do so, he is murdered – against Lorna’s wishes, against her attempts to help him. The culminating act of moral beauty in this film involves Lorna’s refusal to play along with this ugly game – to return to Albania and await the return of her putative lover. Lorna’s rebellion is prompted by her delusional belief that she is pregnant. Her moral energies are directed towards the welfare of her unborn child: a child that does not exist; a child that she has been told explicitly by her doctor does not exist. The final scene of the film has Lorna alone in a forest, in a hut, taking rudimentary care of herself; talking to, reassuring her unborn child; making plans for their next day together. The scene is, on the one hand, an evocation of moral beauty. Lorna’s actions are morally beautiful: a defense of her integrity, directed at the need of another. On the other hand, that other is a figment of her imagination. It is something she draws upon to give moral structure to the possibility of a future. Perhaps the Dardenne brothers were under-confident of the robustness of this evocation of moral beauty because they chose to augment it with a musical accompaniment. In the final seconds of the film, unmistakable chords of the Arietta from Beethoven’s piano sonata ‘Opus 111’ intrude. The music is heard in one brief snatch, then silence. It returns moments later to accompany the credits. [10] It is a complex aesthetic construction. Considering the physical beauty of Arta Dobroshi, the beauty of the forest, the winsomeness of birdcall, the scene runs together multiple kinds of beauty. But the narrative point of the sequence resides with the troubling evocation of moral beauty that is Lorna’s dedication to her unborn, un-existing child. Moral beauty structures the narrative and its outcome. That beauty would survive substitution of a less beautiful actress; it would survive the absence of Beethoven. It would not survive a lack of compassion and good will towards Lorna, or a failure to see moral goodness in her actions.

The two most recent films of the Dardenne brothers – Le Gamin au vélo (2011) and Deux jours, une nuit (2014) – deploy the strategy of revelatory moral beauty in more straightforward ways. In Le Gamin au vélo, Samantha (Cécile De France) is taken hold of by an abandoned child, Cyril (Thomas Doret). The boy clings to her and refuses to let go. Her response is a steadily unfolding commitment to the boy: an act of unbidden, seemingly uncaused altruism. In Deux jours, une nuit, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) confronts her former colleagues one at a time, seeking a sacrifice from them. (They are asked to forego an annual bonus of about 1000 euros in order to allow her to return to work.) Sandra encounters a variety of responses, from the morally beautiful (her encounter with Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev)) to the morally ugly (her various dealings with the conniving factory foreman Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet)). She has the unswerving support of her husband (Fabrizio Rongione). The film is structured around this quest, but is also directed towards a critical encounter between herself and the factory manager, Dumont (Batiste Sornin). At the conclusion of the film she is given the opportunity to return to work at the expense of another employee, whose fixed-term contract would not be renewed in order to facilitate her return. Her refusal is an act of justice, integrity and loyalty to a man who had supported her in spite of his vulnerability. The transformative power of this act of moral beauty is on display in the final scene of the film. As in Rosetta, it is signaled chiefly through a change of countenance. Where the hopeful resolution of Rosetta is slender – barely observed – here it is emphatic. Sandra walks away from the factory with a relaxed and confident demeanour and an explicit declaration to her husband that she is happy.

What is remarkable in this body of work is its consistency of narrative structure. Each narrative is structured around a revelation of moral beauty. Events either lead up to such a revelation or they spring from it. Often the revelations – particularly when they come at the very end – transform the meaning of prior events. Prior events are seen retrospectively as part of a moral struggle rather than mere struggle, a mere succession of tasks. There is a great deal else going on in the films of the Dardenne brothers. The films are doing political work; they involve social critique; they put into question the social exclusions at the heart of modern Europe; they reveal the grim conditions of life for the socially excluded; they critique neo-liberal brutalism; they key into mythological structures of thought (particularly Le fils); they portray action above psychological exposition; they illustrate the tenuous nature of our grasp of intention and purpose. I do not suggest a reductive analysis of their work. My claim is that, whatever else the films achieve, they are organised around the revelation of moral beauty.

I earlier introduced Daniel Jacobson’s sceptical challenge to the idea of moral beauty and its aesthetic significance. The challenge rests on the claim that moral beauty responses are in fact mere forms of approval and lack aesthetic significance. My analysis of moral beauty and my account of its role in the artistic achievements of the Dardenne brothers is a response to this challenge. A disinterested, compassionate response to moral perception involves approval, but the pleasures elicited by it are not forms of approval. One can approve of an act of moral goodness without taking pleasure in it. And the pleasure taken by audiences in their perception of moral goodness can function as an important and successful aesthetic strategy in the production of artworks. Thus the experience of moral beauty is well thought of as an aesthetic appreciation of the ethical.


[1] Plato, Symposium, in Plato on Love, trans. A. Nehamas & P.l Woodruff (Cambridge: Hackett, 2006), pp. 210b.
[2] F. Hutcheson, (1725). An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. 2004), p. 9.
[3] B. Gaut, Art, Emotion and Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 114-27.
[4] Gaut uses the idea of moral beauty to argue for a form of ethicism: the value of an artwork is increased (to some degree) by the moral beauty made manifest in it; it is decreased (to some degree) by the moral ugliness manifest in it. I do not defend this thesis here. I argue for a more modest claim: that moral beauty can add to the aesthetic value of an artwork.
[5] D. Jacobson, “Review of Gaut: Art, Emotion and EthicsNotre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2008 [] (accessed January 2016).
[6] What counts as a distractor depends on style and familiarity with style. The Dardenne Brothers’ editing style might, for example, be a distractor in many films, but adds to the power of their own films.
[7] For example S. Cooper, “Mortal Ethics: Reading Levinas with the Dardenne Brothers,” Film-Philosophy, 11.2 (2007), pp. 66-87.
[8] L. Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011)
[9] R. Pippin, “Psychology Degree Zero? The Representation of Action in the Films of the Dardenne Brothers,” Critical Inquiry 41.4 (2015), pp. 757-785.
[10] This is one of only two uses of non-diegetic music in the Dardenne brothers’ oeuvre. The other – used to very different effect, used randomly and seemingly for shock – is in Le Gamin au vélo (2011).

About the Author

Damian Cox

About the Author

Damian Cox

Damian Cox is Associate Professor of philosophy at Bond University. His recent publications include Thinking Through Film, co-authored with Michael Levine (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); “Avatar: Racism and Prejudice on Pandora,” co-authored with Michael Levine, in Bloodsworth-Lugo and Flory (eds) Race, Philosophy, and Film (Routledge, 2013) and “Judging Character” American Philosophical Quarterly, 2013.View all posts by Damian Cox →