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Soldiers' Stories

A New Kind of War Film: Work as a Matter of Life and Death

"What does the world of work demand? Just this: a place in society." Not a slogan from the barricades of May '68 in Paris, but from Liège, in 1960. That year, this city in southern Belgium was a flashpoint in a general strike that paralyzed the nation, as workers and government forces clashed in warlike confrontations.

Liège is the home of Jean-Pierre Dardenne; his brother Luc lives in Brussels, about an hour away. For the past 25 years they've made the industrial region around the Meuse River, where they were born, the focus of cinematic investigations-first in documentaries about its social history and, more recently, in two extraordinary features, La Promesse (1997) and Rosetta (opening November 5), which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival this year. A straight line runs from their earliest work to their latest, for the strikers' demands from some 40 years ago remain largely unanswered; in Rosetta the same needs fuel the heroine's frantic, obstinate search for work.

"Employment today is like a game of musical chairs," says Jean-Pierre Dardenne. "There are seven chairs, and eight people. When the music stops, the person who can't find a seat is eliminated. So it is with work. The only way to find a job is to take someone else's. So when Rosetta sets out to look for work, it's as if she's going off to war. For her it's a matter of life or death. She thinks that if she doesn't find a place in society, she'll die, she'll simply cease to exist."

The Dardenne brothers grew up in Seraing, a working-class town where daily life revolved around the sirens of steel mills and coal mines. "Our school was next to a factory," Jean-Pierre, who is 48, remembers. "When the wind would blow in a certain direction, the courtyard would fill with red smoke from the steel furnaces, and we'd have to stop playing soccer, because we couldn't see. So that ambience was something we breathed in, literally."

In the early '70s, Luc earned a degree in philosophy, while Jean-Pierre studied acting in Brussels. "I used to bring Jean-Pierre his laundry at school on Saturdays," the younger brother, now 45, recalls. "His professor, the French director Armand Gatti, worked a lot with nonprofessionals. One day, he said I could join them."

Inspired by Gatti's experiments with video, the brothers worked for three months in a cement factory to earn money for a camera and sound equipment, which they quickly put to work in the service of a social vision. "We'd shoot strikes, and show the footage at union meetings," Jean-Pierre says. "Or we'd go into low-income housing projects and videotape people who'd done something with their lives, who'd been active in the Resistance or the labor movement. On Sundays, we'd find a place in the projects, a garage or an apartment, and we'd show the tapes. We were trying to create links between people through video."

In the late 1970s, they produced the first of a dozen documentaries for Belgian television. "We said to ourselves, things happened in this country that nobody talks about," Jean-Pierre recalls. "There had been a Resistance movement against the Nazi occupation-nobody talked about it," Luc continues. "There had been a huge strike in 1960-same thing. We were motivated by the idea that we had to transmit this history to our generation. Well, with La Promesse and Rosetta, we said, enough of memory-we're going to take the people of today, and the things of the present."

The bustling city of their childhood has changed. The steel mills stand empty and rusting; the coal mines are exhausted; downtown has been abandoned to recent immigrants and the people who exploit them. That landscape-a moral universe in disorder-is the setting of La Promesse, in which a young boy is forced to choose between his father, a ruthless black marketeer who traffics in immigrant labor, and his first inklings of conscience.

Rosetta's geography is as tightly calculated as a battlefield. "We thought of it as a war film," Jean-Pierre explains. "The town is the front where she battles for a job. Then there's a kind of no-man's-land, where the bus lets her off. And when she crosses the highway, and goes through the forest, she enters the trailer park, the rear camp, where she eats, sleeps, and tends to the wounded." The latter includes her mother, a phantom figure with badly dyed hair, who prefers to drown her pride in alcohol.

"There are 10,000 people living in campsites in Belgium," Luc explains, "who've lost their homes, and can't get into low-income housing. It's the last step before homelessness."

Yet Rosetta transcends mere sociology. For Emilie Dequenne, it's a story about what it means to be human. "At the beginning, Rosetta is a very absolute, die-hard kind of person," says the actress. "She wants to break in and find her place in the fortress that is the world. She's so obsessed with that idea that she becomes a fortress herself. And one day, she realizes that she can no longer be alone. At that point, she becomes a human being."

In Dequenne's visceral performance (for which she shared the prize for Best Actress at Cannes), Rosetta's character is revealed through repeated, unexplained gestures-like pulling on a pair of rubber boots-that are as tense and ritualized as a warrior's. The boots are meant to protect her from the mud that covers the campsite and, like her mother's despair, threatens to engulf her.

From its handheld camera-work to its refusal to provide psychological interpretation, the film's storytelling is as naked and direct as Rosetta's fight for survival. "Rosellini called it 'the dry eye'-not too much pathos," Luc says, citing as reference points the Italian master's Germany Year Zero as well as Bresson's simplicity and the arid emotional terrain of Howard Hawks's Scarface.

This lean, taut style is also a product of a lifelong conversation. "With age, we need to explain much less-so many things are simply understood between us. Like an old couple," Luc says.

"Of course, as with old couples," Jean-Pierre adds with a laugh, "sometimes things end in murder."

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