Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): **** 1/2
Today marks the Criterion debut of two masterpieces by the Dardenne brothers, La Promesse and Rosetta. Despite nearly two decades of documentary work and a pair of prior features, these were the films that made the Belgian brothers favorites of both critics and festival juries. Watching both for the first time (as a beautifully bleak double feature), it’s easy to see why.
For a long time, I’ve suspected the Dardenne brothers of being little more than garden-variety miserablists (or, even worse, some sort of Dogme 95 splinter group). The brothers’ films are exclusively shot in the squalid industrial hinterlands of Belgium. The stories center on people who have either slipped through the cracks of society or were never above those cracks to begin with. Their style is austere; in -the-moment camerawork that relies primarily on available light, casts of mostly unknown (and often unprofessional) actors, and an almost complete lack of non-diagetic music. These are all tropes of a certain kind of tired “hoi polloi-sploitation” that choke film festival rosters every year (think Ken Loach at his most preachy or, God forbid, Half Nelson).
Prior to these new Criterion editions of their films, I’d only seen the Dardennes Palme d’Or winner L’Enfant and Lorna’s Silence. While I enjoyed and respected both, they failed to leave a lasting impression. However, both La Promesse and Rosetta have a visceral urgency and naked spirituality that forces me to pay them the highest compliment possible: these films are Bressonian, if not in formal control, then in their ability to hint at numinous realities.
La Promesse is partially the story of Igor (Jérémie Renier), a fifteen-year-old boy who has dropped out of school to apprentice as a mechanic. Career ambitions take back seat to spending time aiding (and abetting) his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet), an enterprising human trafficker and all-around scumbag.
When we first meet Igor, he’s helping a poor old lady with her stalled car, refusing her offer of payment. While she thanks him profusely, he quietly nabs her purse containing her freshly cashed pension. The hustle is on from the beginning. This is the moral universe Igor inhabits and it’s a testament to Renier’s muted performance that we buy both sides of him – the boy who seems to genuinely want to help an old lady and the street punk who needs to pilfer extra cash to buy parts for his go kart.
Igor helps manage the illegal immigrants that Roger imports by the busload and stations at a drafty, sagging flophouse. Roger simultaneously facilitates and exploits the laborers, sheltering them while exacting his several pounds of flesh. A quick series of tragic events leaves Igor caretaker to one of the worker’s wives (Assita Ouédraogo) and the infant she shelters in a drawer. Soon, Igor has to choose between his vulnerable charges and his loyalty to Roger’s evil enterprises.
There are few scenes in the film that don’t carry an emotional gut-punch. However, the Dardennes’ unadorned style never dips into maudlin manipulation. The film’s builds to a climax and final shot that is equal parts devastating and hopeful. I hope I’m not laying it on too thick to say that it’s one of the great film endings, on par with everything from Casablanca to Dr. Strangelove.
Also: I need underscore just how singular a creation Gourmet’s Roger is. Roger is the banality of evil, only repackaged in schlubby clothing and Coke bottle glasses. Roger appears (and behaves) more like Igor’s older brother, doling out hugs and punches within the same scene. When Igor calls Roger “dad,” Roger is quick to correct him. “The name’s Roger,” he grunts.
The thick glasses are an especially fine detail, giving Roger a googley eyed, mentally touched look that engenders unwarranted sympathy. In the pantheon of movie monsters, Roger occupies a space somewhere between the casual sleaze of Taxi Driver’s Sport and the mouth-breathing, paunchy menace of Pinnochio’s Stromboli. Whether he’s cutting in line at the welfare office, commissioning a rape, or supervising while Igor buries a body, Gourmet’s Roger is a fascinating study in repugnance. The film is ostensibly Igor’s but it’s Roger who runs away with La Promesse.
In brief, Rosetta – the film that won the brothers their first Palme d’Or – might sound similar to La Promesse. The eponymous young woman (Émilie Dequenne) lives in squalor with a horrible parental figure (Anne Yernaux, a character only credited as “mother”) and reaps the whirlwind of her guardian’s financial and spiritual poverty.
However, Rosetta has a much different approach to the conundrums presented by her surroundings than Igor. Rosetta – the film and the character – is all about fighting for the right live. Far from knuckling under to her alcoholic mother’s depraved standards, Rosetta spends the film’s incredibly terse 93 minutes seeking equilibrium.
I’ve seen the plot of Rosetta described in terms of “poor girl seeks better life” and I think that’s a bit misleading. In a brilliant scene, Rosetta coaxes herself to sleep by going through a liturgy of affirmations. Chief among them are “You have a normal life… you won’t be left by the wayside…” Rosetta doesn’t want a better life, she wants a normal one.
The film opens with its signature shot: the back of Rosetta’s head, as close as the camera can get while keeping her in the frame. It’s almost a POV shot but not quite. The film will never get all the way into her head. Rosetta is storming righteously through a fascility that looks like a venue for soulless labor. She’s hunting down her supervisor; she wants to know why she’s been let go.
After physically attacking her hapless manager and getting bounced out by security, Rosetta performs a ritual we’ll see several times throughout the film – her monotonous journey back to the trailer she shares with her mother. Both in La Promesse and Rosetta, the Dardennes are especially good at capturing the exhausting logistics of living poor. Not owning a car means taking the bus, running across a busy intersection, trudging through the forest, and slipping under a fence in order to return to a home you hate from a job you no longer had. As someone who has lived this way more times than I’d like to admit, I have to say that the Dardennes don’t miss a beat where the frustrations of poverty are concerned.
Unlike La Promesse, Rosetta is very loosely plotted. Above all, it’s a character study of a strong-willed character fighting for the barebones life she thinks she deserves. Dequenne justifiably won international raves for her portrayal of a character too proud to beg, borrow, and steal (she even refuses welfare). Her staid principles lead her in an odd direction, culminating in the commission of an act that’s technically moral but infinitely un-right. Again, the Dardennes create a resolution that will leave you in the dark of the credit roll, rocking yourself in devastation, all the while feeling better having gone with them on this particular journey.
Both films include hour-long discussions between Scott Foundas and Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne, as well as interview with the actors that offer insights into the production and methodology of the filmmakers.
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