Monday, August 13, 2012


When last I spoke of European filmmakers, I basically accused them of gleefully killing any animal that might be nearby when the cameras were rolling. Please note, however, that at no time did I specifically mention Belgians. This is a relief, because tomorrow Criterion is releasing two films -- La Promesse and Rosetta -- by the Belgian filmmaking team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and I'd hate to start off talking about those films on a sour note. The fact that a rooster is killed in La Promesse should not hinder us because that happens off-screen.

Prior to this weekend, when I watched both films, I'd only seen one Dardennes offering, L'Enfant, which I thought was a terrific and terrifically focused piece of almost neo-realist filmmaking about impoverished, fringe lives and the moral quagmires desperate people can sink themselves into. I say "almost neo-realist" because, while meaning no disrespect whatsoever to that form, classic neo-realism can sometimes, and paradoxically, call attention to its particular brand of "real life." This can be a side effect of using non-professional actors, or simply a natural result of being compared to melodrama or other forms of stylized filmmaking, which neo-realism in its infancy was consciously doing. Possibly because neo-realism eventually joined forces with kitchen sink realism, and soon became just another thing, rather than an explicit reaction to a very different thing, the Dardennes' style is able to at least appear to very smoothly exist within the worlds they create. And while I can't pretend to know the biographies of the actors who have appeared in the three Dardennes films I've seen, I'd be very surprised to learn that many of them are or were non-professionals.

Take Olivier Gourmet, who appears in both La Promesse and Rosetta (and L'Enfant, as well). He's a supporting actor in each, but, in La Promesse in particular, he lives and breathes with seeming effortlessness and specificity, with his thick glasses and jogging suit and perpetually unshaven face, as the monstrous Roger, father of Igor (Jeremie Renier), the 14-year-old protagonist whose moral awakening occurs when he witnesses, and helps, Roger ruthlessly exploit the undocumented workers who filter their way through the tenement house where Roger, basically, stores them. One day, when some investigators are coming by to check the documents of the men Roger employs in his construction business, one of the workers, Amidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), dies in a fall. Igor's attempts to save the man's life are thrust aside by Roger, who would rather save his own neck by letting the man die out of sight of the inspectors, and disposing of the body later. From there, the film follows Igor's struggle for redemption as he tries to help out Amidou's widow (who does not know she's a widow, believing instead that Amidou is laying low due to gambling debts) played by Assita Ouedraogo. After a certain point, Roger drops out of the film physically for long stretches, though the danger of his presence never does. Olivier Gourmet's performance makes sure of that, and he does this by making Roger a very ordinary kind of shitty person. Roger is not from a movie, somehow.
In Rosetta, Gourmet plays a somewhat more likable man, though he's probably no less a coward. He's also less vital to the proceedings, playing the owner of a waffle stand where the title character, portrayed by the remarkable Emilie Dequenne. As in La Promesse, our hero is a teenager, although morally, or ethically, or something like that, speaking her journey is rather less optimistic than Igor's. Rosetta goes from smart, angry, but good-hearted, to the kind of desperation that fuels some rather hideous decisions in L'Enfant, though for the most part Rosetta's better sense tends to win out. Mostly. Out of La Promesse and Rosetta, I found Rosetta to be the more difficult, and pitiful, and exhausting to sit through. They are not dissimilar, however. In Rosetta, Dequenne plays a girl who is forced to be an adult, because her mother, for reasons we're never told (the Dardennes are not big on backstory, and God bless them), has fallen so low that she accepts booze for sex. As you might assume, she doesn't work, so any money coming into their home -- it's just the two of them, in a trailer park -- is coming from Rosetta, who keeps losing her jobs for seemingly arbitrary reasons. When we first meet her, storming after her boss in an anonymous factory, she's demanding to know why she's been fired. Because the probationary period is up, she's told. And they don't need her now, apparently. She gets a job at the waffle stand twice; the first time around, she's let go by Gourmet's apologetic, hassled, weak-willed boss because, he says, his son "is a fuckup" and needs the work himself to get on track. At this point, Rosetta's panic is such that she ends up on the floor of the kitchen, clutching a bag of flour. Thinking, perhaps, that since they need the flour for the waffles, and she's holding it, they can't lose her.
But anyway, what I was getting at is that in both films, the teenage leads are never shown having any fun. There's no time for it. In La Promesse, Igor at least had a go-kart he was working on, but by the time of the film's action he's about to have to make the decision to leave that to his friends to take care of. He's about to become very busy taking care of people in the way that perhaps Roger, his father, should have been. Rosetta, you get the idea, would really like to be having fun, but, again, there are only so many hours in the day. At one point, during a brief period when things are looking up for her, she's lying in bed, checking off the things that went her way that day, and among them is "I made a friend." I don't know about you guys, but I can't take that kind of thing. The Dardennes may not butcher live animals on screen, but they do have their ways.

Usually, though, the sad lives of their child heroes are not so explicitly laid out. Most of the point is gotten across by showing Igor and Rosetta riding home quietly on the bus, doing nothing but looking out the window. Not listening to music, not talking to anyone, not even, it doesn't appear, thinking about much beyond whatever the next chore or errand is. Their days are full, I'll give them that. These bus scenes -- and both films have them, as well as other riffs on the same idea -- are among the Dardennes' most striking. Their films are not about the emptiness of boredom, but the emptiness of one damn thing after another that has to be done, that can't not be done if there are to be too many days more, of anything. These films are about survival, of a very quiet sort.

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