Directed and written by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
With Emilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux and Olivier Gourmet
Distributed by USA Films
Opens in New York November 12th
There's no logical reason why a shot taken with a handheld camera should look any more "real" than one taken from a dolly or stationary tripod, but it's come to signify an unvarnished window onto the world. Of course, everyone knows that an unmediated image is an oxymoron, but critics and spectators still often assume that a "realistic" style automatically implies an accurate portrait of the world. When someone as astute as Manohla Dargis takes a film like KIDS for the truth about adolescent sexuality because of its quasi-documentary mise-en-scéne and use of non-professional actors and real exteriors, I almost feel nostalgic for the days when film theorists denounced "narrative illusionism" as the devil's work. The Dardenne brothers have a rare knack for handheld camerawork: the naturalism of LA PROMESSE was so convincing that it seemed practically artless. Only on a second viewing did I realize how much care went into its screenplay. With ROSETTA, their style ventures beyond the "reality" of LA PROMESSE: here, the camera and Rosetta herself move with one mind and body.
In the opening scene of ROSETTA - shot and edited abrasively enough to make LA PROMESSE look as classical as Howard Hawks - she (Emilie Dequenne) is in the process of getting fired from a job after her trial period ends. Insisting furiously that she deserves to keep it, she has to be thrown out physically. After that unpleasant experience, she returns to the trailer park where she lives with her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux), who spends her time mending old clothes for Rosetta to sell and sleeping with their landlord in lieu of paying rent. The mounting despair behind her quest for work colors every aspect of her life, including her relationship with waffle-maker Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione).
Rosetta is a force of nature, not a "three-dimensional" character: Dequenne's performance, which won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes, and the Dardennes' screenplay define her almost entirely by her angry, stubborn willfulness. As a result, her motivation often seems simplistic, opaque or beside the point. Since we can only see her behavior, it's all that matters. However, ROSETTA sets out to embody her personality, rather than capturing it. While the camera never literally adopts her point of view, its frantic motions correspond perfectly to her restless fury.
Many of the problems Rosetta confronts may be the stuff of well-meaning made-for-TV-movies - especially her absent or dead father and alcoholic mother - but these circumstances don't entirely define her character. Her misery still remains mysterious. While LA PROMESSE based itself around an Oedipal crisis, ROSETTA is far more hesitant to spell out the sources of (or possible solutions to) Rosetta's pain. In an interview included in USA Films' press kit, Luc Dardenne opines that "telling stories is an obstacle to their existence. The less we tell of a character, the more that character exists on screen. Rather than narrating the events, we tried to find the essential movements of the character." Perhaps influenced by the audacious narrative gaps of films like Maurice Pialat's A NOS AMOURS and Claire Denis' NENETTE ET BONI, they never bother to give names to her mother and the waffle stand owner, explain what happened to her father or have her discuss the ulcer or severe stomach cramps that plague her.
Next to the glamour and worldwide impact of French culture, Belgium may be overshadowed in much the same way that Canada is by the U.S. By the standards of European capitals, even Brussels is a backwater, yet the Dardenne brothers have so far devoted themselves to exploring dessicated rural/industrial Belgian wastelands. Due to their avoidance of long shots, one gets very little information about her hometown, but the woods around her trailer park offers little solace: Riquet almost drowns in the river where she fishes. This setting is reminiscent of recent French films like Sandrine Veysset's WILL IT SNOW FOR CHRISTMAS?, to which it seems to refer explicitly, and Bruno Dumont's LA VIE DE JESUS, as well as Bresson's depiction of rural misery - and its links to alcoholism - in MOUCHETTE, although I can't imagine Bresson creating a character as vivacious as Rosetta.
The Dardennes' unconventional formal approach goes hand in hand with their political concerns: ROSETTA eventually suggests that only the privileged have access to a backstory or three-act narrative. Rosetta's despair alienates her from the past, transforming her into a perpetual motion machine that behaves as though a hopeful future could be created out of sheer energy. In fact, the film is so energetic that its hefty dose of miserabilism takes a while to sink in. However, it becomes progressively more schematic, while the humor that occasionally livened up LA PROMESSE is sorely missed. (Rosetta has such little time for laughter that only one scene, in which Riquet plays her tapes of his atrocious drum solos, offers anything approaching a light moment.) Despite their general reluctance to spell things out, the Dardennes err by giving her a speech about how badly she wants to live a "normal life", and predictably, this desire eventually becomes so pressing that she takes a step towards the moral rot described so well in LA PROMESSE.
ROSETTA clearly has its finger on the way poverty can lead people towards bad choices, yet I can't help preferring the simpler moral dilemmas and more fully drawn characters of LA PROMESSE. By basing ROSETTA'S visual style and narrative structure strictly around its heroine's impulsive nature, they've made a more adventurous work - juxtaposed with Dumont's L'HUMANITE in the Cannes awards, this must have felt like a real punch in the head to mainstream American critics - but they've also filled in some of the gaps with the kind of sensibility that thinks gloom automatically confers truth and profundity. Even so, Rosetta's indomitable will carries over into the film itself. Miserabilism doesn't get any more exhilarating.