A hand-held camera follows a young woman holding a baby in her arms as she hurries down a busy street, into a doorway, and up some stairs. She knocks on a door and calls out for Bruno, then impatiently turns her back and kicks the door with the heel of her boot. There is no background music, and as we try to make sense of the obscure events every sound takes on heightened significance. Finally a sleazy-looking young man opens the door. A woman is with him—they have obviously been interrupted. The man belligerently asserts that he has sublet the apartment from Bruno, and he slams the door on the young woman and her baby.

Eventually we will learn that this young woman’s name is Sonia, that the baby is her newborn son, that she has been kicking the door to her own welfare flat, and that Bruno, who sublet the flat while she was having the baby, is the father. But now we can only watch and wonder as the camera follows the young mother and infant down into the unfriendly streets of Seraing and through speeding highway traffic to the banks of the river Meuse. So begins L’Enfant, the second of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s films to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

As in other films by the brothers, the beginning of L’Enfant works as psychological bait. We are hooked, interested in the young woman and unable to place her in our stock of predictable narratives and psychological profiles. The brothers believe that deploying psychological stereotypes, in film as in life, keeps us from anything that might challenge our settled understanding of the human predicament. For this reason they pursue an aesthetic of psychological restraint: their characters act in morally consequential ways, but they remain bafflingly opaque. In L’Enfant, Bruno, who is a petty thief, will sell Sonia’s baby as he would any other piece of stolen property. Who is this man? How could he do it? The brothers refuse to give us easy answers.

The Dardenne brothers, almost unknown to American moviegoers, have made four critically acclaimed films over the past decade. European cineastes compare them to the great Robert Bresson (The Diary of a Country Priest, Mouchette, and Pickpocket), who made films with spiritual overtones and offered little in the way of psychological explanation. Stanley Kauffmann places the Dardennes in the “front rank of world cinema” and compares their “method” to Emile Zola’s naturalism. And Roger Ebert, unsatisfied with his own superlatives, borrows André Bazin’s phrase to describe their close-up portraits of desperate humanity as filmed through “the eye of God.”

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne grew up in Seraing, a municipality on the outskirts of Liège in the industrial heartland of French-speaking Belgium. Jean-Pierre aspired to be a stage actor and Luc a philosopher; their collaboration as filmmakers joins these separate aspirations. They came of age during the labor strikes of the 1960s and 1970s, when Belgium’s skilled workers were fighting a losing battle against the advances of a globalizing and robotizing economy. Their first video d’intervention aimed to document and memorialize that struggle. They bought a video camera and learned their trade from the bottom up, doing everything themselves and conceptualizing each shoot together.

After a decade of documentaries (more than 50), they were ready to break out of the constraints of nonfiction. Their first effort, Falsch (1986), a surrealist film based on a play about a Jewish family massacred by the Nazis, was a modest success. But Je pense à vous (1992) was a debacle, with swooping crane shots, background music, and melodrama. The story was recognizably theirs, but they lost control of the film, which was taken over by the actors and technical-cinema professionals. The Dardennes say they drew two lessons from the disaster: “First, cinema is not obligatory; there are a lot of things one can do in life” and “second . . . we had to find again the joy and freedom we had when. . . it was just we two.” They vowed not to work with well-known actors, to choose all the locations themselves (most are in Seraing), to employ a technical crew of friends, to conceptualize every aspect of the shoot together, and to minimize technology. This formula gave birth to four films that have secured them a place in cinematic history.

The Dardennes’ project is to show us the moral dimension of the human predicament without allowing us to dissolve it into psychology. In their foreground is a vision of Seraing’s social reality in which the working class has been deprived of the kind of work that once defined its identity and established the self-respect of its members. The films explore both the generation of workers who lost their work and self-respect, and their children, who had nothing to keep them from descending into the cynical pursuit of brutal pleasures.

The Dardennes’ first successful film, La Promesse (1996), is the story of just such a father and son. The father, determined to survive in his reduced circumstances, exploits illegal immigrants who are working in menial, dangerous jobs. His son is well on the way to becoming his willing accomplice. But then the son makes a promise to an illegal worker who is killed on the job. To keep the promise and embark on a life with a moral trajectory he must betray his father. The son’s choice is not reduced to a simple Oedipal formula or any other typical psychological scenario. It is a redemptive moral choice made visible. La Promesse reminded me less of Bresson’s films than of Tolstoy’s extraordinary short story “Master and Man.” The master, who has always treated his man like a beast of burden, orders him to press the horse and sleigh on into a blizzard that overwhelms them. As the two are freezing in the snow, the master covers his man with his body and dies saving his servant’s life. Similar acts of redemption that defy psychological explanation give spiritual power to the Dardennes’ films.

The eponymous heroine of their next film, Rosetta (1999), is their most unforgettable character. Like Sonia in L’Enfant we see her first close up through a hand-held camera. Rosetta, a teenager, is neither attractive nor appealing. When we first see her she is in a clothing factory, in a rage because she has lost her job; the police have to be called to control her. We sense the desperation of this girl as she struggles to survive—catching fish in the river Meuse to eat—and come to realize that nothing is more important to her than a decent job and the normal life it promises, both of which are beyond her reach. In her desperation she betrays her only friend, a boy who fancies her, to get his job. Then she promptly loses it to the boss’s son. That this girl is angry, depressed, and alone in the world is undeniable. But we see all this from the outside, like watching a tiger pacing in a cage. We may be able to imagine her rage and torment, but we will never understand her consciousness. Rosetta’s day-to-day existence is etched in every detail. We see even her physical suffering—is it menstrual cramps?—as she uses a hair dryer to blow warm air on her stomach. One step up from homelessness, she shares a trailer with her alcoholic mother. We watch through Rosetta’s despising eyes as her mother trades sex for beer and finally passes out drunk.

The film, like L’Enfant, has no background music and little dialogue. We never really know what is happening—we have to surmise and put the pieces together in retrospect. Here we watch Rosetta make a satisfying meal of a boiled egg. She lies on her bunk in the trailer as she savors it with a pleasure we have never seen her express before. Then it becomes clear that it is her last meal: she has turned on the gas and is planning to commit suicide and take her drunken mother with her. But the cylinder runs out of gas and Rosetta has to get another one. We see and hear her dragging the cylinder with grim determination across the gravel of the trailer park. Then the boy she betrayed appears on his moped and embraces her as the film ends.

Rosetta took Cannes by storm, winning the Palme d’Or and best actress for the previously unknown Emilie Dequenne. It may seem strange to suggest that this study of character defies psychological explanation when so much is obvious. One can even imagine a psychiatrist making a diagnosis and prescribing antidepressants. Yet Rosetta’s refusal to follow her mother’s corrupting example, like the son’s decision in La Promesse, is never explained to us in psychological terms. The Dardennes pursue Rosetta with their camera and strip her bare, but they never reveal her inner being. Rosetta is trapped in a dead-end social reality, and we can sympathize with her predicament, we can even empathize with her, but we are not allowed to connect with her completely. She is alone and unknowable. Indeed, it is only in the last moment of the film, when the betrayed and rejected boyfriend comes to her, that we sense a moment of connection and redeeming intimacy. This compelling portrait prompted the Belgian parliament to pass Rosetta’s Law, which provided more jobs for young people.

Le Fils (2002), the Dardennes’ next film and perhaps their best work, explores the challenge of forgiveness. The back story that the audience will only belatedly understand involves a couple whose life and marriage are ruined when a teenager steals their car and then kills their only child who happens to be in the back seat. The film begins a few years later when the father, who teaches carpentry, is approached by a social worker who asks him to take on his son’s killer as an apprentice. Neither the social worker nor the young man knows who they are asking for this assistance. With a camera that seems to see through the eyes of the carpenter we see the story work its way out to redemption. The jury at Cannes may have been thinking about what they owed Le Fils when they gave the Palme d’Or to L’Enfant last year. L’Enfant is by no means the best of the Dardennes’ four celebrated films; in fact, it may be the weakest.

The success of the Dardennes’ aesthetic—the less psychology the better—requires that the little psychology they give us be totally convincing: when Rosetta drags that full cylinder of gas toward her trailer it is horrifyingly believable. Sadly there are moments in L’Enfant that seem by comparison contrived and poorly thought out. The actress who plays Sonia is too conventionally good-looking for Dardennes’ gritty social reality. When she smiles she is beautiful, and she does a lot of smiling when she finds her Bruno. She searches for him on the banks of the Meuse because, we eventually learn, he sleeps there under the bridge when he has no other shelter. When she finally catches up with him he is panhandling on the street while acting as lookout for some thievery in progress. Practically the first thing Sonia says to Bruno is that she cannot wait to sleep with him and the sublet presents a logistical problem. The sexual enthusiasm of teenagers is real enough, but her eagerness so soon after delivering her baby suggests that the Dardennes have taken a peculiar poetic license. And they go beyond poetic license when they have Sonia not just faint when Bruno tells her he has sold their baby but collapse into a coma. When she ends up intubated in the critical-care ward Bruno feels guilty enough to decide that he needs to recover the baby.

The Dardenne brothers say they were thinking of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment when they made this film; that is where the name Sonia comes from. But their Bruno/Raskolnikov does not first rationalize his crime and then learn repentance, contrition, and piety: he acts and reacts without thinking. What kind of man would sell his own child? The easy psychological answer would be a sociopath, a person who does not have ordinary human feelings and certainly no guilt. But the whole point of L’Enfant is that Bruno does come to feel guilt about the consequences of his actions, both when Sonia falls into a coma and when his 13-year-old accomplice in a purse-snatching almost drowns in the Meuse after Bruno drags him into the water to escape the police. (The escape is preceded by the Dardennes’ first experiment in chase scenes.) Bruno feels enough guilt to confess, and he ends up in prison. So if he is not a Raskolnikov, he is also not a person with an antisocial personality disorder, incapable of experiencing ordinary human feelings.

What the Dardennes do show us is that the newborn is not the only child in the film. In several scenes the directors seem to have asked the actor playing Bruno to behave like a child. These moments provide psychological information—they suggest that in feeling guilt and confessing Bruno has finally grown up and accepted responsibility—but they seem particularly contrived. For the ending the Dardennes borrow from themselves. When Sonia visits Bruno in prison, neither we nor they know what is going to happen. Then their foreheads meet across the table and they sob together in a moment of redemptive intimacy reprising Rosetta.

There is much to be admired in the accomplishments of the Dardenne brothers: they have made great films, and they have the enviable achievement of a lifelong collaboration. It is disappointing to think that they may be losing their creative edge and repeating themselves.