Criterion Sunday 621: Rosetta (1999)

The opening of this film is iconic, and to a certain extent it’s what put the Dardenne brothers — already in their middle age and having had years of documentary and film experience behind them — on the map. Our title character just barges forward relentlessly, getting into a fight with her employer (who has just let her go at the end of a probation period), and in the first few minutes we don’t even see her face, just the arch of her shoulders, her propulsive forward movement, the determination that the back of her head implies, the anger at not having a job anymore. This defines the film and while it does slow down at moments, for meals, brief tender passages between people, for the most part it’s this forward momentum that carries it. Obviously it’s a style that the brothers were working on in their earlier film La Promesse but it comes to fruition here, in a film that delves into the lives of those living outside of established social safety nets, a hard-scrabble existence of living paycheque to paycheque, needing work to survive and doing anything they can to get it, a generation Rosetta exemplifies and had such a strong effect there was even a belief it led to a law protecting the minimum wage in Belgium (it didn’t, but it certainly must have galvanised opinion). It still holds up all these decades later, and the Dardenne brothers still have strong careers on the back of its impact, but it’s hard to get over the way this central character is introduced, the force with which that swing door is pushed as this film begins.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne; Cinematographer Alain Marcoen; Starring Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Olivier Gourmet, Anne Yernaux; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Friday 28 July 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Melbourne, Friday 3 March 2023).

La Sapienza (2014)

Established directors with a distinctive style can attract backlash. For example, I like the films of Wes Anderson, but I gather that many do not, and that’s fine and understandable. It may be a reaction to many things, but I suspect primarily it’s the stylisation, the candy box set and production design, and the ever-so-slightly self-consciously stilted line deliveries of the actors. Lacking the widespread acclaim of Anderson, but making films every bit as stylised, is Eugène Green, who also originally hails from the States (New York, to be precise) but lives and works in France. In La Sapienza (translated as “Sapience”, an archaic word for wisdom, here applied specifically to the work of 17th century Italian architect Francesco Borromini), Green uses architecture as, ahem, a structuring conceit for a story of four people.

Going back to the comparison I started out with, it’s not that I think Green and Anderson are comparable in their work, just that this is the first film I’ve seen by Green and I think for those who are unfamiliar with his work (as I imagine most are), you might start with the acting. The enunciation of the actors — particularly Fabrizio Rongione in the lead role of architect Alexandre — is declamatory, and generally delivered while facing directly into the camera. Facial tics and body language are kept to a minimum, which lends a deadpan aspect to much of what Alexandre says (and incidentally makes the film pretty comedic at times, in ways I think are probably intended). His wife Aliénor (played by Christelle Prot, a frequent collaborator with Green) has a softer, more symapthetic mien, though even with her every delivered line of the script is given its space. Soon enough, the respective stories of these two split off from one another, as, after travelling from Paris to Italy, they bump into two young people. Alexandre accompanies architecture student Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) around Italy, as Aliénor stays to look after Goffredo’s ailing sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro).

Every bit as stylised as the acting is the mise en scène. Green prefers very carefully-balanced and symmetrical frontal stagings, usually of two actors side-by-side, or in rigid shot-reverse shot constructions of dialogue scenes. Interspersed are views of buildings, with the camera often panning up towards the sky along a building’s façade as the characters discuss Borromini and his ideas of space and light. However, unlike say a Godard film, the dialogue is not just philosophical treatises delivered stiltedly, though the allusions to classical architects and digressions to appraise various buildings make it all unashamedly high-cultural in its effect. No, this is a film primarily about two characters in their middle-age who find themselves reassessing how they want to live and work, and who are inspired by the younger generation they meet.

If it all seems arid, elitist and rather precious, then at a certain level, it is. Once you allow that, it’s really all rather delightful, warm and funny and witty and even human, despite all appearances. The director pushes the artifice in all its senses, but its building blocks remain the four people.

La Sapienza film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugène Green; Cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne; Starring Fabrizio Rongione, Christelle Prot [as “Christelle Prot Landman”], Ludovico Succio, Arianna Nastro; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 15 October 2014.

Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, 2014)

It’s over 25 years now that the Dardenne brothers have been making feature films, longer still documentaries, and I think it’s become obvious now that these two filmmaking modes have blended together somewhat in their output. There’s a fastidious, almost real-time focus on the ways events unfold in people’s lives, of the cascading impact of sometimes small events on a wide circle of people within a community (a family, a company, a town). So in many respects this latest film of theirs won’t seem a surprise or a departure for those who’ve already immersed themselves in their fictions, but it’s every bit as well-crafted as the others and packs a resonant emotional charge in this time of downsized jobs and recession-era austerity.

At the film’s heart is Marion Cotillard as Sandra, hair pulled back and moving as intently and constantly as Rosetta did in their 1999 breakthrough film of that name. Sandra has been away from work for an unspecified period, battling depression, but now returns to find she no longer has a job: it’s been bartered away by her managers in exchange for a one-off bonus payment to the rest of the staff. It quickly becomes evident in conversation with one of her few friends left at the company, that in order to save her job she must contact each of these employees and ask them to vote against their bonuses. This, then, is the form the film takes: a series of encounters with her co-workers over a weekend, broken up by occasional time at home with her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and children.

It’s an unenviable position, not particularly helped by the apparent lack of any unionisation at her workplace. The manipulative games of her (mostly unseen) line manager Jean-Marc seem to thwart her at every turn, as every positive gain seems to be countered by some hidden aggression. But it’s a film which paints a small-town world of people struggling to make ends meet that manages to avoid demonising any of them, her manager (and a co-worker’s abusive husband) aside: they each have their reasons, and it’s difficult even for Sandra to always reason against them.

Still, it gives her squeezed-middle-class character an insight into the lives of her co-workers and us an idea of the character of her community. The struggle on which she is embarked also seems, in an odd way, to pull her through the vestiges of her depression, which understandably flares up from time to time. Cotillard is in fine form, as are the Dardennes, and there’s a compassion at the film’s heart that makes some of its repetitiveness (necessitated somewhat by its structure) easier to take, with her final decision both heartbreaking and yet poignantly filled with hope.

Two Days, One Night film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne; Cinematographer Alain Marcoen; Starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 14 September 2014.