Sunday, March 30, 2008

La Promesse (1996) & Rosetta (1999)

Okay, so after the empty calories of Doomsday, it was time for something a little more filling. I'm late in catching up with the Dardenne brothers, the Belgian filmmakers who already have two Palmes d'Or under their belt after only four films - I hadn't seen any of their movies until their most recent, L'Enfant, in 2006. So allow me to make up for lost time with enthusiasm: these guys are f$*&ing geniuses.

One of the major weaknesses in modern filmmaking is that Hollywood has so concentrated on making films that are escapist fantasies that they've all but stopped making films about life as it is lived by the majority of their audiences. I know this is nothing new - Fred Astaire's dance rhythms didn't have much to do with the Great Depression - but I think the modern corporate mindset most films are made in these days has made things worse. The Dardennes worked for years making documentaries in Belgium about working-class peole, and the result is that their feature films are shot as virtual documentaries as well, but precisely conceived and executed ones.

Their first major film, La Promesse, tells the story of a teenage boy, Igor (Jeremie Renier) who's growing up in the shadow of his father Roger, a charming, self-centered con man who, among other enterprises, smuggles immigrants into Belgium, then puts them up in his own apartment building and hires them to work cheap. When an African laborer dies in an accident, he makes young Igor promise to take care of his wife and baby son; Roger's reaction is to bury the man in cement rather than take him to a hospital. From this point on, the movie is Igor's education, his road to redemption as he tries to make amends for the sins he has been complicit in, his path to independence from his monstrous, yet still sympathetic, father. Through all of this, the Dardennes capture the action in long, unbroken shots in gloomy industrial settings, meaning that it feels like we're watching real life unspooling before our eyes, but with a clear moral and spiritual focus on the characters and their choices.

Their next film, Rosetta, is even better. Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) is a 17-year old girl living with her mother in a trailer park, and the movie portrays her desperate search for employment. Cheerful, eh? And on top of that, Rosetta herself is something of a pain in the ass, introduced in a scene where she gets fired from a factory and proceeds to storm around in a tantrum and scream at her boss until she gets thrown out by security guards. Every Dardenne movie has good fights, but Rosetta has a virtually non-stop series of scuffles, screaming matches, and characters who fall into rivers. It's great! These movies are immensely simple, and therefore immensely risky - you can only get away with having your characters bicker at each other in an unbroken five-minute shot if the actors know what they're doing and if the filmmakers know what to show us.

Rosetta is, ultimately, a film in which a young character is totally beaten down by life and, in a magical final scene, regains her hope. It's the kind of tiny crystallized moment that every filmmaker aspires to, that you try and build towards over the entire design of a film. And in today's world it's a refreshing blast of clarity amidst a sea of mediocrity.

La Promesse: 8/10
Rosetta: 9/10


John M said...

Those are their two best, I think. They're really fantastic, aren't they? Narratives based purely on need, rather than wants or dreams. And such a wonderful combination of bald realism and mystery.

Did you actually find a DVD copy of Rosetta? There isn't one on Netflix.

Jeff McMahon said...

I should have explained, during the month of March a local indie theater was showing prints of their movies on Friday nights, and Rosetta was the one I managed to go see, primarily because it's the one not on DVD. Next up for them is a Hou Hsiao-Hsien series, as well as a series of Soviet musicals and films by Harmony Korine, among others.

John M said...


Who says LA ain't got no arthouse culture?

I'm jealous you saw Rosetta on a big screen...I've only seen it on videotape.

I would DEFINITELY check out the Hou Hsiao-Hsien series, if you can. His stuff really should be seen in a theater--a little screen kind of deadens it all.

And Soviet musicals? Damn, now I'm jealous.

Justin Snow said...

The only movie I've seen by the Dardenne brothers was L'Enfant. I enjoyed it but I didn't really know that much about them until now. I guess I have some more movies to watch. That is, apparently, if I can find a copy of Rosetta.

Craig Kennedy said...

Nice reviews. I haven't seen Rosetta either.

I think you're right that the current corporate mindset has tainted Hollywood's natural inclination towards escapism. I'm sure I'm romanticizing things, but I picture a guy behind a desk chomping on a cigar talking about giving the people what they want. These days it all seems so much more cynical than that and it's remove from reality is actually irritating.

Of course, from neo realism onward, foreign films have always helped to fill that gap and the Dardenne brothers are carrying that torch today.

Jeff McMahon said...

You're right, they and the Romanians (Mungiu and Puiu) are our modern Rosselini and De Sica. I can't say enough about Rosetta, and it's tragic and bizarre that it's only available on VHS, as it's their best film. Like I said, L'Enfant was the first of their films that I saw, and it's pretty good, but I think it might also be the least of the four that they've made so far. Hopefully a second viewing, upcoming, will say for sure.