★★★★ / ★★★★
Shot without distraction or decoration, it is critical that “Rosetta” shows only the truth because its aim is to show a stark portrait of poverty. Its style is so bare, so skeletal and realistic that a handheld shooting style is employed in order for viewers to be placed right in the action as a desperate teenage girl, having just been let go from a temporary position without warning, hunts for a new job. Rosetta is played by Émilie Dequenne and she dominates every frame and devastating moment in the film—an astounding achievement because not only is it her first starring role, it is her first role ever on film.
Writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are masters of showing rather than telling. Instead of relying on dialogue as a tool to explain or acknowledge the hardships of Rosetta’s life, the camera simply follows her day-to-day activities, the frame in focus from the waist up, often shot from behind. We observe the state of her trailer home. The interiors are drained of color and excitement. We notice her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux), panic-stricken at the sight of her daughter coming home because she knows that Rosetta is like a bloodhound, always searching for evidence that mother has been drinking yet again.
Lesser filmmakers would likely have made the parent a target of ridicule, someone to judge and blame. Instead, the Dardenne brothers, so focused in their objective of showing a specific lifestyle of a specific life, use the matriarch as a figure of Rosetta’s possible future. Rosetta regards her mother not necessarily with love or pity but a wilting thing that needs to be cared for because she is helpless. She fears she will become her mother if she fails to get “a real job” and live “a normal life.” The dialogue is scant but when utilized, we are made to remember what is expressed and how.
We note Rosetta is always drinking tap water. She rarely eats because there is nothing to eat. But she must quench the hunger somehow. She is prone to abdominal pains so crippling, it is one of the rare moments when we see her react intensely. Despite her discomfort and exhaustion—in body, mind, and spirit—someone in their two-person household must land a job so bills can be paid. The campground manager (Bernard Marbaix) shuts things off without warning when payments are late.
And so off Rosetta goes to ask around if anyone is looking to hire. Many of those she encounters never bother to look her in the eye. But looks or judgment, or lack thereof, do not defeat her. She is used to it, inured by people’s apathy. And when a rare person comes along who appears to genuinely care for her, who likes her in all of her simplicity, this individual (Fabrizio Rongione) is tested. Why should they care for trash like her? We look in Rosetta’s eyes and realize that perhaps trash is exactly how she sees herself sometimes. Still, she remains to have the will to fight, refusing to accept welfare or handouts. She’d rather sell clothes off her back.
Notice how “Rosetta” does not employ soundtrack or score. Nor does it need to. Its music can be heard all around, from the way people move, like during a scuffle with security guards because someone would not leave the premises when asked, and how they feel when they are struck with a discovery, such as coming across one’s unconscious mother exposed outdoors for all the neighbors to see or a when a friend offers a helping hand. The music is ingrained in the every day happenings for the viewers to absorb raw, unfiltered.
Meute, La (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Tough chick Charlotte (Émilie Dequenne) picks up a hitcher named Max (Benjamin Biolay) when three bikers are on her tail. Although she is reserved toward him initially, there is something about Max that she feels is different from other guys. Soon, Max ends up behind the wheel. As she sleeps, he pulls over at a saloon so they can get coffee. Max gets up to use the restroom; Charlotte plays an arcade game from two feet away.
Having noticed that it has been quite a while she she saw her friend, she checks the restroom and he is nowhere to be found. She finds it bizarre: the bathroom windows are the kind that cannot be opened without breaking the glass and she would have noticed if he went out the front door. She decides to break into the saloon later that night.
Written and directed by Franck Richard, “La meute” is beautifully shot, especially in capturing the eeriness of the provincial outdoors and murkiness of the unkempt indoors, but the template of the story lacks both genuine thrills as well as an explanation that justifies the supernatural phenomena introduced some time in the middle. The strange goings-on drives the picture’s latter third and it reduces the characters to using guns to defend themselves.
Although the first half consists of ugly torture scenes, at least it made me feel something. What is done to Charlotte, especially her stint on “the chair,” made me feel squeamish because she seems to have very little hope of escaping. She is tough and she is unafraid to use opportunities to her advantage but her captors are just too experienced. Her best hope is a retired cop, Chinaski (Philippe Nahon), with whom she conversed with prior to her disappearance. Although he is smart, his physicality leaves much room for doubt.
When the secret involving blood-eating monsters that live in a slag heap are revealed, the story fails to move past it. They appear, they bite off limbs, people scream out of pain, and then disappear until the next night. We learn nothing about their strengths and weaknesses, their purpose, and how or if the summoners benefit from being of service. We are given one line about the Earth having to be fed (or something of that sort) but that is it. Sure, the monsters look scary but after looking at them for five minutes, they cease to be interesting.
I wanted to know more about the woman (Yolande Moreau) who helps Charlotte and Max out of a prickly situation and driving away the bikers off her tavern. I liked the way she wobbles about from one area to the next but still maintaining a level of mystery. Moreau seems more than capable of creating a complex character so it is most unfortunate that the writer-director does not give her very much to work with.
“The Pack” does not work because it is uneven tonally. Most importantly, there is a consistent lack of convincing transition between prickly situations; it never looks deeply into the possibility that something supernatural might be at play. One cannot be blamed for tuning out eventually and poking fun of what is going on instead of remaining to invest and engage in the main character’s plight.