The 11th-hour Palme d'Or win of Rosetta, which showed on the final day of the festival, should have come as no surprise. In a competition of complacently selected World Cinema brand names, with more than its share of bloated irrelevancies, major missteps, and minor efforts, Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's bracing follow-up to La Promesse cut through the flabby lineup like a hot knife through butter.
As committed to an unvarnished handheld camera style as La Promesse, but even more compact and distilled, Rosetta depicts an unemployed girl's tenacious, pathetic search for a job. Living with her defeated alcoholic mother in a trailer park, Rosetta negotiates an endless obstacle course masquerading as a society. Rather than personify or dramatize social forces arrayed against her, this Darwinian study suggests that Rosetta's oppression is rooted as much in her internalization of dog-eat-dog capitalism as in her unpitying environment. She's so intent on survival that she's unable to recognize the possibility of human connection offered by a young coworker whom she later betrays. In a cruel twist, it becomes clear that Rosetta is her own worst enemy.
Though the Dardennes' brisk, kinetic style couldn't be further from Bresson, Rosetta is an urban update of Mouchette. Constantly in motion, a subverbal but insistent presence filled with fierce desperation, Rosetta is not so much portrayed as incarnated by Emilie Dequenne, who deservedly won one of the Best Actress prizes.
Where Rosetta depicts its protagonist's predicament in entirely external terms, Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay's debut film, Ratcatcher, an equally unsentimental and bleak portrait of solitary youth, is distinguished by a profound sense of psychic landscape. Employing an anecdotal construction, Ramsay's film, screened out of competition in Un Certain Regard, sketches the inner life of a boy (William Eadie) haunted by the secret knowledge that he caused the accidental drowning of a child.
Citing Bresson and Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas as influences, the 27-year-old writer-director rejects being labeled a Loach-style social realist. The tremendous authenticity of milieu (1970s Glasgow) and behavioral observation is offset by a hermetic, private quality. This is partly due to the intensely subjective treatment of the narrative, partly due to the way Ramsay drops the viewer into her world and cinematic style (previously established in her remarkable semiautobiographical shorts Small Deaths, Kill the Day, and Gasman).
Clearly the work of an uncom-promising filmmaker her compositions, cuts, and use of sound are sharp and unconventional Ratcatcher is at once stylized yet naturalistic, subjectively heightened yet detached. Ramsay notes, "I wanted it to seem timeless I try to create an atmosphere that's based in a kind of realism but on another level is a half dream-state." The film's charged images and situations ultimately suggest a cinema of memory compulsively struggling to reconcile trauma and nostalgia, oscillating between violent eruption and becalmed suspension.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.