When you conjure up Belgium, you probably think of -- ummm, give me a minute here -- oh yeah, those flavored beers, waffles, and maybe moules-frites. But Belgium's newest claim to fame is cinema, as evidenced by the evolving career of realist Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. They made their first splash in the art-film scene with the highly acclaimed La Promesse in 1996, and now they've come out with Rosetta, a frenetically depressing glimpse into the evidently cutthroat world of Belgian waffle vendors.
Not only did the film win the coveted Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but ingenue Emilie Dequenne also won Best Actress for her portrayal of the besieged young heroine Rosetta. The plot centers around Rosetta's attempts to get a low-paying job, all the while living in a trailer park and caring for her mom who sleeps with really disgusting men for cheap liquor. The film seems to take place in real time, propelled by the harrowing, frenzied momentum of Rosetta as she gets jobs, loses jobs, throws fits of rage, and ultimately steals a waffle-vending position from a guy who tries to be her friend and ends up her stalker. It's like an Emile Zola novel on crack.
Getting It recently sat down with Rosetta co-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne to discuss Rosetta, Cannes, the state of film, and whether Julia Roberts has a soul.
GETTINGIT: In New York, Belgian waffle restaurants are all the rage with upwardly mobile, cell-phone-dependent 20-somethings. I can't think of a greater socioeconomic contrast than between that crowd and the downtrodden trailer-park down-and-outs in Rosetta, who fight for hard-to-get waffle jobs in Belgium. Do you think that Rosetta's focus -- on the difficulty of getting a job and the dignity of work amidst chronic unemployment -- will seem otherworldly to Americans in today's flush economy?
LUC DARDENNE: The reason why [Rosetta] wants a job is because she wants to be part of that society, and as long as she doesn't work she's outside of it, she's excluded, she doesn't belong. For Rosetta, to work is to live. If you're outside, you're on the dole, you're receiving help from others, but you're not your own person.
Being in society and working -- even if it can be alienating, as shown in movies like Clerks -- gives you the right to have claims on that society. If you don't have work, you don't belong in the society, so you have no rights to complain or protest or try to make your life better. Without work, you can't even negotiate: if you say "I'd like a more decent life, and a bigger apartment for my family," they'll say, "What right do you have to ask for that?" So work is like a contract between the individual and society, giving the person rights in that society because he belongs to it. Rosetta has no rights, she cannot claim anything.
GI: So Rosetta doesn't even have the right to future alienation and future scenarios in which she despises a meaningless job?
LD: She doesn't have that option. In Europe, it's the people with too many jobs who complain the most about alienation.
GI: I was wondering what your take is on the politics of the Cannes Film Festival. Was it a big surprise to you that you won the Palme d'Or, and did it matter that David Cronenberg was president of the jury (that perhaps he deliberately favored the most marginal, anti-commercial films)?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE : It's not our position to comment on a jury decision, especially since we were in the eye of the storm as one of the competitors. Of course it was a surprise that we won. Each piece of art is unique, and it seems paradoxical to place them in competition, but we agreed to be part of that game.
GI: But what's interesting is the lineaments of the game. Because a lot of people are saying that Cannes is such a crucible for filmmakers, and with the hazing you receive from critics, the jealous competition... a lot of people wind up asking themselves "do I really want to subject myself to that?" I mean, you came out with the Palme d'Or, but others go to Cannes and leave with more enemies than they had when they arrived.
LD: For us, it's the first time we were in competition, and we had no preconceived ideas. But we knew that it could either end up a first-class burial or the biggest promotion you can get for the film. Cannes is still the biggest film festival in the world, and the second most-covered event after the Olympics. So you take that risk -- otherwise, just stay home.
But we did feel that there was a real sense of freedom coming from the jury, and that all the prizes were given to movies that were art films. This was a recognition of a cinema that was watching reality and the real world. Cronenberg said it well in [the French journal] Liberation: that he didn't take a political stance with prizes, but an aesthetic one.
GI: Given your background in documentary filmmaking, what do you think of the recent mainstreaming of documentary-style approaches to filmmaking, as with Blair Witch Project, which uses cinema verité as a promotional campaign or formats like MTV's Real World? How do you keep the cinema verité approach an insurgent form given this mainstreaming?
JPD: What you're describing isn't in Europe yet, but it's coming soon. But Rosetta, as a work of fiction, is not in reaction to that trend at all. Rather, we felt that fiction allows us to find more reality than just by looking at it. We felt that by just filming reality, you lose the weight of things.
LD: Documentaries are a contract between the audience and the filmmaker, an agreement that the reality being watched is real, not a manipulation. But more and more the tendency is to manipulate it without the audience knowing, like paying people to say they are someone who they're not. And that's dangerous, because it breaks the moral contract you have with the audience.
GI: Are there any American filmmakers you are particularly influenced by, and who seem to be running a parallel course to you in terms of their approaches -- I'm thinking of Larry Clark, who did Kids and Another Day in Paradise, who has a pseudo-documentary, still-photography based aesthetic. Does anything on the American end seem promising?
LD: Filmmakers in America who influence us and are still living? [Pause, contemplation] Living, no, I don't think so. Well, we've liked a lot of Cassavetes' films -- The Killing of a Chinese Bookie we've seen over and over again. Another one is Kazan's film, Les Visiteurs [The Visitors, 1972]. Apart from that, no.
JPD: I like City of Hope by John Sayles, and Lone Star.
GI: Emilie Dequenne, who plays Rosetta, is a typical French actress -- she's filled with hyperkinetic despair, and gives a very emotional, very tense performance. Then you contrast this with American actresses like, say, Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, where there's this kind of soul-death going on. The more money actresses or actors make in America, the more they seem to die on screen. I mean, look at Travolta and Cage -- they're just these corpses up there, getting $20 million a film. Do you think that there's something about European cinema that keeps actresses alive, that assures that their performances stay vital even as they age? Maybe it's because they don't pay them outlandish salaries?
MICHELE PETIN [a Rosetta producer]: Someone told me this joke the other day, that a "grim" film in America is when Demi Moore has no makeup [Laughs].
JPD: Personally, I like Travolta. But maybe the real problem is that these actors are so highly paid that the director doesn't dare ask anything from them, because they are afraid of the problems the star could create.
To me, that's the core of the problem: that making a movie is becoming a way to deal with the money more than deal with the movie. I have nothing against having a lot of money to make a movie, but once you start making the movie you should put the money aside and think of the movie. Maybe Travolta can be bad because people can't ask him things to do, and that's where the money ruins everything.
The bottom line for movies is to try to give life to characters, but when I read about movies and see how they're promoted it's all about how much actors are paid, the box-office ranking of the film, etc. How can you talk about the movie amidst all this? So maybe that would be a great documentary: how stars make deals with their agents.
Rosetta opens today in limited release.
Peter Braunstein writes about film and pop culture for the Village Voice, and is currently co-editing an anthology on the 1960s counterculture.