Ever since Rosetta won the top prize at this year’s Cannes festival, American journalists have puzzled over the jury’s decision, or written it off as mere insolence. To hear them tell it, the film is so slight as to flirt with nonexistence. There are no stars and no big actorly turns, no amusing settings and no enviable clothes, no songs, no suspense, no excitement, no romance–nothing but an angry and impoverished 18-year-old girl, living in a trailer park outside some Belgian town that looks as if it were all poured from the same cement mixer.
This description is accurate in fact; but it is not truthful. It doesn’t tell you that Rosetta is both subtle and stunningly direct; that its narrow focus is more like a stare, at once penetrating and compassionate; that suspense, excitement, romance and even music animate the picture–though an audience habituated to American movies might not notice these qualities without first purging itself. A painless procedure: Simply abandon the things you think you know; stop busying yourself with emotions you think you should feel. Open your eyes, ears and mind to Rosetta, and discover how full this movie can be.
At the film’s center–and its periphery, too, since she occupies every frame–is the title character, played by Emilie Dequenne, who shared the prize for best actress at Cannes. Before Rosetta, she had not appeared in front of a camera; she performed as if she believed, once the filming stopped, she would no longer exist at all. From the opening scene onward, Dequenne seems to hurl herself against the world, which is as much of a strategy as the character herself can manage.
We first see her from behind, without knowing why she’s stomping and panting her way down a corridor. The camera, which is handheld throughout the movie, chases after Rosetta, scarcely able to keep up with her fury. Suddenly, in a blur of action, she is in a shouting match. She has completed a training program at a factory, only to be told there are no jobs–and now, in desperation, she not only refuses to leave the premises but assaults the personnel manager.
So much for introductions. It’s only when she’s been peeled off her opponent and is outside again, riding the bus toward home, that we get a clear view of Rosetta. She has the sort of broad, flat face that runs down in straight lines from hairline to jaw, then slants in abruptly to a square little chin–features that are left harshly unframed, since her dark hair is sheared no more carefully than a dog’s. Her costume–a zippered sweatshirt, a jacket with red and black stripes, a short skirt that looks too flimsy for the weather–leaves her looking short and chunky. You can believe this young woman subsists on waffles and French toast.
In the washed-out light that predominates in Rosetta, these brute facts strike the eye bluntly. And yet half the action is invisible. You observe the minute details of Rosetta’s routine–the way she hides her town shoes in an out-of-use drainpipe, the way she sneaks into the trailer park from the rear, through the woods–but the reasons for these actions never rise to the surface. That’s the subtlety of Rosetta: The film is as reticent as its protagonist, who refuses to let people see her enter the trailer park and won’t expose her precious shoes in that place.
The shoes are her tokens of “a normal life,” the name she puts on the seemingly unattainable ideal of a job, a fixed home, a friend. Without them, Rosetta lives between shame and rage: shame that she strenuously conceals in the face of “normal” people, rage that explodes when anyone penetrates her mask. Watch what happens when Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), a very casual acquaintance from town, follows her to the trailer park on his motorbike. Rosetta launches herself at him and has to be wrestled into submission in the mud–and all the poor guy wanted was to direct her toward a job, and maybe ask for a date.
Dates are a delicate issue for Rosetta. She suffers from chronic cramps, which she treats by warming her belly with a hair dryer. Maybe the problem is all that rage and shame; or maybe it’s her mother, who likes to get drunk and screw. No matter that those are among the favorite pastimes of normal people. Sex and booze are dangerous luxuries to Rosetta, who eats her own gut trying to keep Mom in line. Still, when Riquet sets her up with a job, she consents to visit his apartment.
The film, which has been moving headlong, slows down for the first time, as Rosetta allows herself to sit at Riquet’s table. She eats the starchy meal he serves. She listens to his music. Abruptly, unexpectedly, she accepts a beer and downs it in one gulp. Romance, song, suspense: Have they ever been felt more intensely in a movie than they are here, in this narrow, smoky room, with people who are so awkward, inarticulate and touching?
“Your name is Rosetta,” she says to herself later, lying in darkness, and answers, “My name is Rosetta. You have a job. I have a job. You have a normal life. I have a normal life.” As the camera hangs above her, you watch this young woman trying to become the self she hopes for; and though the actress is still and the image still, something trembles in the scene. It’s the movement of your thoughts and feelings.
People say Rosetta is a slice-of-life drama; and that description, too, is accurate in fact. But it says nothing about the whirl of three or four extended scenes–set pieces, in effect–which rise to such a pitch of irony that realism falls away. By the end, the buzz of Riquet’s motorbike sounds like the wings of the Furies; the weight of a propane tank in Rosetta’s arms becomes as inescapable as the rock of Sisyphus. Big dramas are enacted by these little people in the trailer park, even while their physical presence remains hard and irreducible.
Rosetta was written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Their previous film, La Promesse, also took the outward form of a social-problem picture, about undocumented workers from Africa and the people who smuggle them into Belgium. It was a good piece of work; but I thought it was a little too flattering to the audience. Whenever the main character faced a moral choice, he did exactly what you thought he should.
Rosetta is not so convenient. Its protagonist does what she thinks she must. Her choices will probably sit uncomfortably with you; but there’s an almost fanatical integrity to them, which is matched by the integrity of the filmmaking. For the Dardennes, good direction is not just a question of maintaining an honest viewpoint, or telling a story with all due economy. If they found even one frame in Rosetta that struck them as a lie, you feel, they would go to the projection booth, tear it from the reel and burn it.
Would Rosetta herself watch Rosetta? I don’t think she’d want to. She’d probably believe that movies, like sex and booze, are dangerous luxuries; if she dared to indulge, she would choose one that “normal” people were going to see. But if she found herself in the dark with these images, I think she would recognize herself. Maybe then she’d say, “Your name is Rosetta. You are worthy of attention,” and quietly answer, against all odds, “My name is Rosetta. I am worthy of attention.”
And now, for something that’s American and very easy to like: Being John Malkovich.
If the film doesn’t leave you self-deafened by laughter, you should begin at some point in the screening to hear a small, insistent voice in your head, which will ask a lot of questions. What if celebrity, that most American of virtues, exists next door to nonentity? How come people fall in love with an “inner self” but get picky about its wrapping? Must thin, sarcastic, helmet-haired women with cigarettes always be irresistible? Must artists always be pouty manipulators? Could chimpanzees enjoy a greater degree of free will than humans? And, most frightening of all, is it possible that promotional films tell the truth?
You will want some plot to go with these riddles. Very well: Craig (John Cusack) is an embittered and impecunious puppeteer who cannot understand why the public rejects his streetcorner re-enactments of the lives of Héloïse and Abélard. Desperate for money, he takes a job as a file clerk on floor 711/2 of a Manhattan office building, where everyone has to stoop. There he encounters thin, sarcastic, helmet-haired, cigarette-smoking Maxine (Catherine Keener), for whom he conceives a passion. He also discovers a wee doorway, which might have been left over from Alice in Wonderland. Crawl through the door, and you suddenly plummet into a point-of-view shot that turns out to belong to John Malkovich.
It’s thrilling to be John Malkovich. Craig wants to go back inside him right away. So does Maxine, once she visits. So does Craig’s wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), who suddenly feels so complete, so right, in Malkovich’s body. She just has to use him again. And Maxine has to use him, from the outside, while Lotte is inside. Then Craig, being a master puppeteer, learns to use Malkovich better than Lotte does. You can see how complicated this all gets, especially for Malkovich, once he finds out what’s going on. But who cares about him, anyway? Everybody knows he’s famous, but they think it’s for “that jewel-thief movie,” although Malkovich insists he never made such a thing.
What the chimpanzee has to do with all this, I leave you to discover. Some things shouldn’t be tampered with. One of them is the inside of Malkovich’s head. Another is the pleasure you’ll get from watching Being John Malkovich.