Going Into Labor
Did you know that Belgium recently instituted a new labor law? I didn't either, at least not until after seeing Rosetta, a searing film that follows a 17-year-old girl (Emilie Dequenne) through the endless struggles of her life in rural Belgium. Turns out the movie helped inspire the new law to begin with. After this work of hardscrabble neorealism began selling out theaters in its nation of origin (it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes a year ago), Belgian socialist leader Laurette Onkelinx was moved to propose the Rosetta Plan, a bill that requires companies to offer a quota of jobs to some of those under the age of 25. Alas, only young people who have never worked before are eligible--meaning, ironically, that the experienced Rosetta would benefit not at all. Still, the fact remains that this is a rare film with the power to bring about progressive change in the real world. What's the last movie that managed to put food in people's mouths? What's the last movie that wanted to?
Rosetta is the latest work by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (La Promesse), a pair of Belgian brothers who have brought their 15 years of documentary experience to bear on a narrative feature with all the aching force of the best nonfiction films about labor. The tenacious heroine of the title fights poverty in the film's every frame, yearning for a job that will keep her and her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux) living in their trailer-park home. The Dardennes train their roving camera on Rosetta's hands as she baits the hook on a bottle fish trap, mixes waffle batter, peels a hard-boiled egg, uses a blow dryer to soothe her pained stomach, or carries a heavy canister of propane back to her house: Every action is an effort. Recalling the great tradition of neorealist world-cinema classics about poor children, from Los Olvidados to Pixote, the movie displays an astute class consciousness that's never reducible to platitudes about the courage of the impoverished. In the end, the Dardennes pull off a brilliant transference of energy that puts Rosetta's fate in another's hands--and, essentially, in the viewer's as well.
This strategy of tearing down the fourth wall to ask, "So what are you going to do about it?" is nothing new for the Dardennes. Their documentaries of the Seventies and Eighties--about anti-Nazi resistance, Polish emigration, an underground newspaper, the 1960 labor strike in Belgium--were further distinguished by being shown mostly at union meetings. Last fall, the brothers brought Rosetta, a movie that has been equally praised and condemned as "Marxist," to the New York Film Festival, where it clearly wasn't preaching just to the converted. Two days after a ludicrously trite pan in the New York Times complained that the movie "feels claustrophobic" (what should a film about extreme poverty feel like?), I met the Dardennes and their producer/translator at a Central Park West hotel, in a spacious suite perched high above the class struggle.
CITY PAGES: Both the style and the subject of Rosetta are unusual by today's standards. How did you hit upon the idea for the film?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: We started with the decision that at the center of the film would be a young woman. We always start with the character and then move on to the situation. In this case the situation is that the character is outside of society, she wants to get in, and she can't. She feels that the only way in--to be equal to other human beings--is to get a job. Other than that, we decided that we wouldn't follow a typical story line; the only thing we wanted to follow was the character. We never knew what was going to happen to her--we just followed her. We thought the film should be very tight, like when you bend your arm to shoot an arrow. It should have that kind of tension.
CP: One of the things maintaining that tension is the handheld cinematography, with its constant close-ups--of Rosetta's hands, oftentimes--and the lack of establishing shots. What was the basis of that technique?
LUC DARDENNE: [Rosetta] works all the time: Even when she's looking for a job, she's working. We wanted to take each of her gestures very seriously, because, for her, they're a matter of life and death, part of her constant struggle. We decided not to view those actions as anecdotal within a larger story: They're crucial for her, so they're crucial for us--how she puts her shoes on, how she gets through the fence, et cetera. It's her way of surviving.
CP: You could say that the film is a documentary of her life. Given your long history making actual documentaries, what motivated your shift to narrative?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: Our first desire was to work with actors, to invent a character and give it expression. We also felt that we wanted to tell stories, to push the limits of possibility and raise questions--like "Why would anyone kill or betray someone?" One has less freedom to ask those questions in documentaries. In our documentary films, we were always telling stories of the past. We never made documentaries about things happening now.
CP: I haven't seen the documentaries, but it seems from their subjects that they have the same political motivation as the fiction films. Does narrative cinema have a different potential than documentary cinema to bring about change?
LUC DARDENNE: We don't make movies to change the world. We hope that the world is going to change, but we don't use movies to do that. If you have an objective in making a movie--like a desire to change things, or send a message--you tend to manipulate. And then you have propaganda, and that's dangerous. It's like publicity that tries to encourage you to buy this brand rather than that brand. Our only goal is to try to show "the naked man," as [Belgian writer] Georges Simenon would say--the human being, and how he or she would react in a given situation. Our characters aren't heroes; they're just human, with strengths and weaknesses. Now, things can happen between the movie and the audience. A viewer can begin to have different perceptions of the world because of the movie he's watching. But that's out of our grasp. It's wonderful when that kind of thing happens, but you can't control it. The movie has its own life; it has nothing to do with us anymore.
CP: That being the case, would you be equally comfortable making a film about someone of privilege?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: Hmmm [laughs]. That reminds me that I recently saw a documentary about [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, and in it someone asked him why he chose again and again to make films about the working class. His answer was simple: I'm not interested in the upper class. And I would answer the same: We film the people we're interested in.
CP: Why is it so rare for a film to display a class consciousness these days?
LUC DARDENNE: It's because class consciousness is disappearing from society. The impoverished have become pariahs--we don't see them. For the dominant culture to look at these people would be to admit a problem, to admit that society perhaps doesn't have a right to be the way it is. Generally, people decide either not to worry about [the poor] at all, or to do charity for them--which might help the problem somewhat, but it's basically another way of not looking at them.
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: Maybe ignoring these people is also a way of saying that they don't have a right to a history of their own. Their story is always the same, and it's always a number, a statistic. It's interesting that when there is a movie about poor people, like Rosetta, people say it's "a social movie." Whereas if the character had a lot of money, people would say it's "a psychological movie."
CP: It seems fair to say that Rosetta reveals something that most people don't want to see, and that places it in a tradition of politically challenging documentary and narrative cinema. Which are the films in this tradition that have been most influential to you--or the ones you'd credit with opening people's eyes?
LUC DARDENNE: One film absolutely qualifies, and that is [1946's] Rome, Open City by [Roberto] Rossellini. It showed the Italians and the world that Italy both collaborated and fought with the Nazis. It was a new way of looking at Italy. [The Holocaust documentary] Night and Fog is another film that really changed things. Now, perhaps to contradict what I said previously, Rosetta has opened in Belgium and France and it's doing extremely well, which maybe shows that, at the end of the century, people are more ready to look at these issues than they were before.
CP: The two films you mentioned both mix documentary and narrative styles--like your own two narrative films. What is it about that mix that has such power?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: It's a feeling you have when you watch the film that things are really happening--they're alive. The situation is not frozen into a time capsule; it's happening as you watch it. Nothing is too late.
Rosetta starts Friday at U Film Society; (612) 627-4430.
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