Rosetta/La Promesse Review

“My name is Rosetta. I found a job. I’ve got a friend.”

Belgium, the present day. Seventeen-year-old Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) lives with her mother (Anne Yernaux) on a caravan site on the outskirts of Liège. Her mother is an alcoholic, not above prostituting herself for a drink. Rosetta lives a semi-wild existence, catching fish in home-made traps, dressing herself from thrift shops (red and blue raincoat, grey schoolgirl skirt, thick yellow tights). As the film begins, she’s laid off from the catering factory where she works. So begins her search for a job, any job, that she can call her own…

Although Rosetta was Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s fourth dramatic feature, and its predecessor La promesse had certainly been noticed on the festival circuit, it was fair to say that their film was one of the least heralded competition entrants at Cannes in 1999. Apparently the critics’ screening was early in the morning, so many gave it a miss. But then the festival jury, headed by David Cronenberg, awarded Rosetta the Palme d’Or and eighteen-year-old Dequenne shared the Best Actress Prize. Rosetta is a powerful, deeply affecting film told in a ultra-realist manner, taking a sharp look at a real social problem that certainly isn’t unique to Belgium. In this, the film certainly had an impact: later in 1999, Belgium passed a law known as the “plan Rosetta” which prohibited employers from paying teenage employees less than the minimum wage.

Watching the film again after the Dardenne Brothers’ follow-up The Son, it’s easy to see the continuing themes in their work, as well as the way their filmmaking style has developed. Bresson is an obvious influence on Rosetta) (his film Mouchette in particular), for his pared-down style and use of non-professional actors. But only up to a point: although all of the four principal actors apart from Olivier Gourmet had never made a film before, they all had stage experience. (Dequenne has gone on to make other films, including Brotherhood of the Wolf.) Kieslowski (another filmmaker who started in documentary and moved on to fiction) is an avowed influence, and like him the Dardennes are interested in religious themes such as forgiveness and grace, though explored in a more secular manner than the overtly Catholic Bresson. The Dardennes are also very interested in work: their characters are partly defined by the jobs they do, and frequently they it’s manual labour.

The Dardennes’s protagonists are searching for an identity. In The Son, Olivier’s identity came from being a father (and a husband). When that’s forcibly taken away from him, he drifts into a quasi-paternal relationship with one of his pupils, who Olivier knows killed his son. Rosetta’s entire sense of herself comes from a need to work, a need so overwhelming that she can become violent if it’s thwarted. This is a need so powerful that it leads her to betray Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), a potential friend. (It’s telling that in the words she says to herself in bed – quoted above – that she puts “job” before “friend”.) This quest carries a physical price: Olivier has a bad back and Rosetta every so often suffers debilitating cramps – either bad period pains or symptoms of a gastric complaint, the film leaves unexplained.

All this is told with a camera that’s constantly on the move, as if finding the story documentary-style rather that it being staged in front of it. Often we’re left to interpret events ourselves, Rosetta’s cramps being one example. Nor is there a music score to sway us. We’re even invited to continue the story ourselves beyond the last scene, as both films end with an abrupt cut to black. Rosetta is a film devoid of sentimentality. Rosetta, in Emilie Dequenne’s remarkable performance, isn’t played for easy likeability and only once, towards the end, does she give way to tears. “Feral” is often the word used to describe her character, and it’s apt: her life is a fierce struggle to survive that earns your compassion and compels your respect.

La promesse was made three years earlier and played in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 1996 Cannes Festival. This DVD marks its first UK commercial release in any format. Fifteen-year-old Igor (Jérémie Renier) works as an apprentice garage mechanic. Outside work, he helps his father (Olivier Gourmet) run a scam by employing illegal immigrants on building sites. But when one of the workers is killed in an accident, Igor promises to look after his wife Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and child.

This is in some ways a more conventional film than Rosetta. As the brothers say in the interview included in this DVD set, Rosetta (and for that matter The Son) are almost entirely character-driven. La promesse is more conventionally plotted. The acting is predictably solid, especially from Gourmet, in the first of his three films for the Dardennes, and Renier (who really was fifteen when he made this, and who went on to appear in Brotherhood of the Wolf and The Pornographer). The elements of the Dardennes’ style are certainly present, but less developed: the natural-light camerawork is much less mobile, for example. It’s a good movie on an important issue – two things which don’t necessarily go together – but presenting it as part of a double DVD allows us to see it as a step on the way to Rosetta, a greater achievement to my mind.

This Artificial Eye release is a two-DVD set, with Rosetta on one disc and La promesse on the other. Like the two-disc release of The Son it’s encoded for Region 2 only and has menu options in English, French, Dutch and Italian. Rosetta has twelve chapter stops, La promesse sixteen. Oddly, there isn’t a scene selection menu on the latter disc.

Both films are presented in anamorphic transfers, in the correct ratio of 1.66:1. Both are immaculate presentations of films which don’t lend themselves to being reference quality DVDs. There’s quite a lot of grain, particularly in darker scenes, but that’s due to the natural light camerawork (and presumably fast film stock) that the Dardennes use throughout. It adds a gritty quality to both films, which – amongst other things – helps keep sentimentality at bay.

Both films have a Dolby Surround soundtrack, though in keeping with the documentary-like shooting style, anything apart from the centre speaker is hardly used, except for ambient sounds, and then not often. There’s no music, except that which is actually played on screen.

The bulk of the extras are on the Rosetta disc. Firstly, there are interviews witrh the Dardenne Brothers, presented full-frame and running 10:11. This looks like it originated on television. The interview is in two halves: footage from 1996 on the release of La promesse followed by a return interview from 1999, post-Rosetta. This isn’t as in-depth as the interviews on the Son DVD, but is certainly informative and interesting. As well as the admirably concise trailer (in non-anamorphic 1.66:1, running 0:58), there is also footage of the Cannes awards presentation (full-frame, 2:02), featuring a tearful acceptance speech from Dequenne. The first disc’s extras are rounded off with cast and director biographies and a stills gallery. Each brother gets a separate biography and filmography, which inevitably overlap, and there is a third filmography for their production company, Les films du Fleuve. Once again, it’s good to see a filmography that has been actually compiled rather than simply lifted from the IMDB. On the La promesse DVD there is a trailer (1:09), cast and director biographies, and another stills gallery. There are some irritating menu design flaws: the link that says La promesse on the Rosetta disc simply takes you to a screen that tells you to change the disc, as if you couldn’t work this out already. While the same Gourmet biography appears on both discs, the Dardennes’ biography on La promesse simply refers you back to the Rosetta disc.

With its Cannes wins preceding it, a single-DVD release of Rosetta on its own would have been enough for most distributors. So well done to Artificial Eye and their European partners for taking this opportunity to make the Dardennes’ earlier filmLa promesse available. Which you’ll prefer is no doubt a matter of personal taste, but with these two films and The Son, the Dardennes have established themselves among Europe’s leading directors.

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