Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s 1996 film, La Promesse (The Promise), examines how a teenage boy unlearns patriarchal values through his relationship with an undocumented Burkinabé immigrant.
Fifteen-year-old Igor (Jérémie Renier) has been raised by his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), to follow his extreme example of toxic masculinity: suppressing all emotions and relating to others through fear and domination rather than mutual recognition and care — especially those of a different race, nationality, or gender. But when Igor promises the dying Amidou (Rasmané Ouédraogo), one of his father’s undocumented immigrant employees, that he will look after his wife, Assita (Assita Ouédraogo), following Roger’s example proves ineffective. To honour his promise, Igor must reject the masculine values he has been taught and learn to practice empathy.To honour his promise, Igor must reject the masculine values he has been taught and learn to practice empathy.Click To Tweet
Roger is the ruling tyrant of his small world, and Igor is his assistant in the smuggling and exploitative employment of undocumented immigrants. He keeps them completely dependent on him by paying them low wages and charging them high rent for rooms, in a decaying, raw-sewage smelling building. He even forces them to plead with him for basic needs like heating. They have no recourse for complaint or retaliation because Roger can and will respond by turning them over to immigration.
To ensure that Igor has no alternative role models, Roger cuts off Igor’s contact with the outside world. He forbids Igor from building a go-cart with his friends and sabotages Igor’s work as a mechanical apprentice by frequently calling him away from work, resulting in Igor losing his job and the far more positive influence of the journeyman mechanic. Roger’s control is so complete that he even lacks respect for Igor’s physical boundaries: Igor acts as an extension of Roger’s body, an extra limb to be commanded, putting eardrops in Roger’s ears and cigarettes in his mouth.Igor acts as an extension of Roger’s body, an extra limb to be commanded, pupting eardrops in Roger’s ears and cigarettes in his mouth. Click To Tweet
Igor assumes Roger’s behaviour is not just acceptable but worthy of emulation, which is why he has developed a complete contempt for Roger’s African and Eastern European employees. When Igor watches the newly arrived Assita and Amidou perform a ritual to protect their baby from “bad spirits,” he derisively and ironically declares there are “no bad spirits here”. Similarly, because the only relationships with women that Igor has had or seen modelled are negative — his mother has left for unexplained reasons and Roger is in another abusive relationship — Igor has taken on his father’s misogyny. He voyeuristically leers at Assita through a hole in the wall of the decrepit apartment, and in the film’s opening, he steals a wallet from an elderly woman after helping her fix a small issue with her car.Initially, he attempts to fulfill his promise to Amidou by providing Assita with overbearing, paternalistic protection.Click To Tweet
Because he lacks positive role models, Igor is only able to slowly and gradually become more caring. Initially, he attempts to fulfill his promise to Amidou by providing Assita with overbearing, paternalistic protection. Igor assumes he knows what Assita needs — money and a heater for her cold apartment — without actually listening to her or engaging with her. But these “gifts” are manipulative, bandaid solutions, meant to force her to depend on him even though he can only precariously maintain this meagre support.
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It soon becomes clear to Igor that the only way to fulfill his promise is to reject what he has learned from his father and to start practicing empathy. Igor foils his father’s plan, to abandon Assita in Germany, without consulting her, and Assita pulls a small knife on him, demanding to know what is happening. Here, Igor realizes the false security of masculinity, that acting as if you’re in complete control does not mean you are. Igor finally sees Assita not as an object to be pitied, but as another human with agency. He realises that the only way to keep his promise to Amidou is to work with Assita to get what she wants, which is actually to go to relatives in Italy.
Engaging with Assita causes Igor to become more respectful of her culture. On learning Assita’s baby is sick, Igor helps her get to both a hospital and then to a “traditional” medicine ritual. In the earlier ritual he witnessed, which augured“evil spirits” inhabiting Amidou and Assita’s building, Igor was completely dismissive. He ignored its warning, which could have made him attentive to the danger of the exploitive conditions his employees live in. This time, the local man performing the rite tells Assita her baby’s illness is caused by a dead ancestor who cannot rest until they have obtained justice. Now, Igor is attentive. The ritual makes Igor aware of his guilt. He takes it as a sign that he needs to finally be honest about Amidou’s fate, which he had previously concealed at his father’s request.
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The Dardennes suggest that the privileged need make an imaginative leap in order to get outside of their pre-existing frame of understanding. Exposure to difference, alone, is not enough to create empathy and understanding of the “Other”. Roger, who is also in constant contact with the immigrants whom he exploits, never learns to see them as people, as Igor does, because he never interrogates his dominance mindset.The film itself participates in the “othering” of African immigrants — the toxic frame of mind that Igor must unlearn. Click To Tweet
Yet La Promesse itself participates in the “othering” of African immigrants — the toxic frame of mind that Igor must unlearn. The immigrants are the vector through which Igor, the European protagonist grows, with more attention given to how Igor reacts than to the deep trauma experienced by Assita. The Dardennes draw heavily upon colonialist stereotypes for symbolism, depicting African immigrants as “undeveloped” because of their dependence on superstition. La Promesse lacks the complexity the Dardennes would develop in later films, where the “Other” is the protagonist (for example, the Albanian immigrant in Lorna’s Silence), rather than merely a vehicle for the white protagonist’s growth.
Yet La Promesse is not a conventional white saviour narrative. Igor’s good acts alone won’t be what makes a meaningful long term difference. Helping Assita to avoid a terrible fate means only treating the symptoms of oppression. As long as toxic masculinity exists, people like Assita will be exploited. But because Igor learns empathy — to step outside of his own perspective and realize that what is beneficial to him hurts so many others — he has the tools to make more meaningful change in the future. In the film, Igor begins, on a micro level, to addresses one of the root causes that led to Assita’s exploitation. He now has a path, though it is unknown if he will take it, beyond perpetuating a system of domination.