Saturday, November 25, 2017

215. Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ francophone film “Rosetta” (1999) (Belgium) based on their original screenplay: The desperate struggle of a poor teenager who craves for a regular job and a steady income to improve her own life with an alcoholic mother

“Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta. You found a job. I found a job. You've got a friend. I've got a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won't fall in a rut. I won't fall in a rut. Good night. Good night.”  --Rosetta speaking to herself and responding to her own stronger self and making a personal resolve before falling asleep in the film

The Dardennes brothers constitute Belgium’s best gift to world cinema and are included on this critic’s best 15 active filmmakers from around the world.

They are distinct from most other filmmakers for at least four reasons. One, they write their own original screenplays. Two, they choose subjects that relate to poverty, ethics, and social struggles to survive (similar to the works of English director Ken Loach, also on this critic’s aforementioned list).  Three, the brothers work as a team (similar to the Italian Taviani brothers, also on this critic’s aforementioned list).  Four, their use of extraneous music is minimal in all their films and handheld camerawork is very common.

Emilie Dequenne is "Rosetta"---her award-winning debut role that launched
her successful career in films

Who is Rosetta? She is a Belgian teenager living with an alcoholic mother in a parked caravan because they cannot afford to live in a regular house. (The social predicament is very close to Ken Loach’s 1966 English film Cathy Come Home, which was based on a play.) The fictional Rosetta shows the responsibility of an adult by working when jobs come by and collecting clothes to mend which her mother does when she is not drunk. Their joint income is precariously placed on the abilities of the teenager to survive.  When the mother makes money by prostituting her body, the angry teenage daughter berates her own mother “We are not beggars.” The Dardennes’ magic is to create unusual lovable characters living on the fringes of society  such as the “adult” teenager  Rosetta, or the young teenager in The Kid with a Bike (2011) yearning for parents who would love him, or the young mother who is desperate to retain her job that she lost recently to supplement her husband’s income in Two Days, One Night (2014), or a young doctor who feels guilty at not opening her clinic door when an unknown patient had rung her doorbell late in the night only to be found dead soon after that in The Unknown Girl (2016). What is amazing is that the Dardennes brothers not only think about such original offbeat ideas, they make lovely screenplays and elicit great performances from their actors-- professional or otherwise--film after film.

Making resolutions to herself before going to sleep. (refer: Quote above)

Rosetta, the film, was a great success and viewers began to conjecture that Belgium’s Rosetta Law, which ensures that teenage wages are the same as others', was an outcome of this film’s popularity. The Dardennes brothers clarified that was not the case—the Law was about to be “voted through” when they made the film. This revelation is important to figure out how the duo develop their original screenplays.  One detail that made this critic wonder was how Rosetta’s name was printed on her apron at the waffle outlet so soon after she took on the job. Or is it that Rosetta was never her real name in the first place? No one calls her by that name except after the dream like monologue (quoted above) in which she seems to force herself to be called Rosetta after possibly noticing the name on the apron worn by her new boyfriend.

Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione, a Dardenne regular) teaches
Rosetta to dance in his apartment

For those familiar with film of the Dardennes brothers, there are common strands to their varied works. In Rosetta, the young teenager replaces a young mother pleading with her employer to retain her at the waffle dough making centre. In Two Days, One Night, the main protagonist plays a young mother pleading with her employer to retain her. The directors present both viewpoints in a world where jobs are not easy to come by. The pleading statement by the teenager uttered in the movie will resonate with viewers then and now “I want to stay. I want a job. A normal life like yours.”  

Similarly, both films present the tug of war between survival and friendship. In Rosetta, the teenager risks retributive anger from her only friend in life to get a job that ensures survival for her and her mother. In Two Days, One Night, if true friends try to help the other, it could cost their own job. It is a Hobson’s choice.

Poverty and resulting ingenuity makes Rosetta to trap fish
 in broken bottles filled with bait and hook

Rosetta presents another interesting relationship—the mother and daughter equation in the absence of a male breadwinner.  The alcoholic mother would go to any extent to get an alcoholic drink. Her level-headed teenage daughter cajoles her to seek rehabilitating cure. The alcoholic mother pushes into a filthy pond, nearly drowning her daughter, to escape rehabilitation. The daughter presents the other extreme end of family relationship--forgiving and caring personality. The mother plants flowers around the trailer home—the daughter plucks them out. For the young teenage girl her vision is to earn enough to move to a better home. The mother, on the other hand, has given up hopes of a better life.

The young teenager almost drowned when her mother pushed her into a pond. The very same teenager almost lets her only friend drown, with the grisly objective of replacing him at his job, only to rescue him on second thoughts. For the Dardennes brothers, their characters are complex but they do have basic goodness that overshadows their baser dark instincts to survive under any cost. "Rosetta"is stoic as she overhears the pleas of a worker she has replaced. 

The name Rosetta appears on her apron shortly after taking on the job.
Did she dream up her name after watching her boyfriend
dispense waffles wearing the apron?
Why convince herself that she is Rosetta in her monologue? 

For the Dardennes brothers, there is one formula that works. The lead character in each film is a fighter and often a humanist, who believes in family values, irrespective of the current situation. The director duo never provides a cut and dry solution at the end, as in Rosetta. The viewer is not spoon-fed but nudged to figure out the outcome of the situation.

The directors also have a technical formula that also works:  stick with their regular cinematographer, Alain Marcoen; their film editor Marie-Helene Dozo; their costume designer Monic Parelle, where possible and throw in parts for the tried and tested regular actors they have worked with: Fabrizio Rongione and Olivier Gourmet.

The two formulae have always worked.

P.S. The film Rosetta won three awards and honours at the Cannes Film Festival: The Golden Palm award for the best film of the year; the best Actress Award for Emilie Dequenne and a special mention from the Ecumenical jury. Two Dardenne films-- Two Days, One Night and The Kid with a Bike—have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access the reviews)

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