Criterion Corner Review: Two of the '90s' Best French Films Hit Blu-ray

Criterion Corner Review: Two of the '90s' Best French Films Hit Blu-ray

Aug 19, 2012

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#620 LA PROMESSE  (dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) 1996

#621 ROSETTA (dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) 1999

THE FILMS: “Cinema is not obligatory.” That’s what Jean-Pierre Dardenne told his brother, Luc, when their careers as filmmakers seemed to be stalling out in the early 1990s. Their transition from competent but (commercially unsuccessful) documentary work to feature-length fictions was not going well. In fact, when the fraternal duo broke off from the rest of the Belgian film industry and decided to self-finance a gritty little movie with a skeleton crew and an untested cast, they swore that it would be their final failure -- if it didn’t work, they’d simply quit the business. After all, there are other things to do with one’s life besides making movies (i.e. writing about movies). 

Cut to 16 years later, and the Dardenne brothers are the winningest filmmakers in the history of the Cannes Film Festival, and routinely cited as an (inseparable) pair of the world’s finest auteurs -- La Promesse, the project that was poised to be their last, was screened for my class on the very first day of film school, a model of the narrative economy and emotional clarity to which we students were encouraged to aspire. It’s the kind of storytelling that’s so pure it feels eminently possible, so fluid and immediate that it feels like the result of alchemy, and not craft. No matter how many times you’ve seen La Promesse (or any of the Dardenne brothers’ films, for that matter), it always unspools as if its story is unfolding before your eyes, maybe on the other side of a grim window or through a looking glass to a world that would be too horrible to witness if it weren’t so perfectly told. The camera relentlessly follows the action, never leading it, so stubbornly reactive that one is liable to confuse the obedience of the image for authorial cluelessness -- as if the directors had no idea what they were doing. Of course, for the first time in their lives, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne had finally found their voices. For the first time, their cinema, at least, was obligatory.

The Dardenne brothers don’t really do parallel action. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single instance of cross-cutting in any of their films, because -- beginning with La Promesse -- their movies are motivated by a merciless focus on the world as it exists to a single person, often a poor and feral adolescent on the brink of some spiritual evolution. The Dardennes’ camera sees only what its subjects do, the visual information it hides from the viewer every bit as critical as that which it elects to show.

The prototype for this uniquely Dardenne-esque hero was Jérémie Renier’s Igor, a coarse blond teenager who bears a passing resemblance to a young Michael Angarano (in his Sky High days). Igor is a crafty ball of clay, a lower-class kid whose body is as undeveloped as his moral compass. He lives in the industrial city of Líege, Belgium, where he assists his domineering father (the incomparable Olivier Gourmet as Roger) in the operation of a delightful human trafficking service, ostensibly shepherding immigrants from exile to America, but more often than not just stealing their money and leaving them for dead. Igor’s father, a conniving brute who’s resigned to a dog-eat-dog philosophy, hopes to stomp out Igor’s compassion because there’s no place for such selflessness in a capitalist society, but Igor is still a kid, confused and unformed. We’re introduced to him as he exploits his apprenticeship at a mechanics to steal an elderly woman’s wallet, but -- as soon as he’s gotten away with it -- he buries it deep in the dirt behind the garage like a shameful secret. He sneaks off to the bathroom in advance of a deportation raid so that he doesn’t have to see it. He spies on an African mother named Assita through a peephole in Roger’s tenement boardinghouse, but he looks at her with the curiosity of a child rather than the malice of a man. When Igor looks at Assita, he feels what he can’t entirely understand -- that if he allows this woman to suffer, it will be too late for them both.

Like many of the Dardenne brothers’ most resonant films, La Promesse can be seen as an intensely physical treatise on the possibility of grace and kindness in a cutthroat world. Theirs are grim fairy tales for hyper-monetized times, fables that spin outward from the fringes of Robert Bresson’s indelibly cynical final film, L’Argent. So far as Roger is concerned, there are no free rides. Every time he offers someone something for nothing, it’s a trap. The greatness of Olivier Gourmet’s performance is that Roger is always fiercely sincere, even when he’s lying through his teeth. The economy and a dull understanding of human value has twisted him into a seemingly evil man, but he’s no Daniel Plainview, he treats Igor like a partner and not a prop. Roger loves his son, but feels as though the best thing he can do for the kid is to teach him how to beat the world, and he fails to anticipate that Igor might rather improve upon it. 

Several Dardenne films are more “pure” than La Promesse, but very few are more complete. It’s tempting to label La Promesse as one of the best coming-of-age films the cinema has ever seen, but Igor has already been forced to grow up so fast that age has already escaped him. Instead, I’d argue that La Promesse endures as a rare portrait of moral survival.

In 1999, the Dardenne brothers returned with Rosetta, earning their first Palme d’Or in the process. The film takes the most distinctive elements of La Promesse -- a financially stressed youth on the margins of society, an energetic faux-verité feel, an obsession with labor and how it imparts a sense of value -- and shears them down to the bone, excising a spiritual experience into a primal one. The film explodes into being in media res, opening with the Dardennes’ version of an action sequence. A feral teenage girl sprints through the hallways and back rooms of an anonymous factory, chased by suits trying to restrain her. The camera flails around her body, following her every violent move in close-up, an attempt to blot out everything that doesn’t immediately pertain to the girl. The scene has all the hallmarks of a desperate escape, but the girl -- Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne, in her first film role) -- has no concern for the exits. She wants to stay and she wants to work, but there’s no need for her, so she’s sent packing back to the trailer she shares with her mother (part-time prostitute, full-time alcoholic). Yadda yadda yadda... the Aristocrats! 

Okay, so Rosetta isn’t exactly the feel-good film of the year, but it’s nevertheless a remarkable treatise on the inertia of being marginalized, a kinetic story of invisible people that’s told with the brawn and brute force of a Jason Bourne movie. On top of that, it’s also almost certainly the best movie ever made about waffles. The film’s negligible plot follows Rosetta as she attempts to find a new job, and altogether escape her life. The brunt of the running time is devoted to the various rituals that comprise a significant chunk of Rosetta’s daily life -- fishing for food in an unsavory pond with a broken glass bottle in lieu of a fishing pole, visiting an abandoned pipe in order to hide her only pair of decent shoes, and shooting hot air from a blow-dryer onto her stomach in order to alleviate the menstrual cramps for which she can’t afford painkillers. It’s all in service of her obsessive quest to find employment, her most successful attempt at which occurs when she lands a trial position at a waffle stand run by Olivier Gourmet.

Gourmet’s presence wordlessly evokes the grim financial Darwinism at the heart of La Promesse, as does his character’s decision to fire Rosetta the moment his troubled son is expelled from school and in need of work. Someone has to suffer in order for someone else to get by, a cynical thought that inextricably binds Rosetta to the Dardenne brothers’ previous film -- of course, as in La Promesse, that philosophy is methodically (yet abruptly) thwarted by the unwavering humanism that stamps all of their work with a toughly triumphant spirit. On a related note, it may be helpful to point out that the relative quality of a Dardenne brothers film can be easily deduced by the size of Olivier Gourmet’s role -- the more he’s in the movie, the better it is. That’s just science. Olivier Gourmet is only in Rosetta for about five minutes. The most acetic Dardenne brothers film and the least conventionally entertaining, Rosetta is nevertheless indelibly emblematic of what makes their cinema so vital.

THE TRANSFERS: La Promesse, despite being the slightly older of the two films, actually enjoys the cleanest transfer. The image inherits a feel that’s equal parts gritty and grainy, but despite the occasional softness, it feels like a faithful reproduction, and a massive improvement on the preexisting DVD. Rosetta, on the other hand, doesn’t fare quite as well. The overall image quality is perfectly reasonable, but it doesn’t feel quite as sharp as that of La Promesse. Much more troubling, the upper portions of the frame warble with artifacts during long stretches of the film’s opening minutes, an unusually distracting problem for a Criterion release, particularly so far as relatively recent films are concerned. 

THE EXTRAS: Upon first blush, both discs seem relatively light on supplements, and... well, they are. But the conversations between Scott Foundas and the Dardenne brothers, one of which is included on each disc, are both an hour long, substantial and unusually candid interviews that are now the definitive resources for information on these films. The filmmaker interviews are complemented by shorter, but similarly fascinating talking head chats with Olivier Gourmet, Jérémie Renier and Émilie Dequenne, who revisit La Promesse and Rosetta as if flipping through the pages of their high school yearbooks. Finally, each disc arrives with its own Kent Jones essay, both of which make for mandatory reading. 

THE ARTWORK: Eric Skillman’s cover designs for these twin releases are a small wonder, as he delicately removes La Promesse and Rosetta from their own stodgy iconography by leaning on less popular (but perfectly evocative) images from the films. Igor and Assita seen from a distance with a heap of negative space above their heads, Rosetta seen from behind, her neck twisting her face into view... these gorgeous glimpses get to the heart of these movies, and the titles -- scrawled across the covers in a lilting hand-written scratch -- capture the harshly poetic and hardscrabble tone of a Dardenne brothers’ film.




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