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Down, Not Out

Photo by Christine Plenus
ROSETTA, THE TOUGH, FEROCIOUSLY UNsentimental movie from Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, has been getting a bad rap from some of this country's critics since it screened at the New York Film Festival in September. Named for the equally tough, desperately poor 17-year-old girl who steamrolls through it, the film is a portrait of dispossession so acute that it's caused a few critics to cry, Let her eat cake! One New York Times reviewer actually seemed repulsed by the heroine's poverty, all but sniffing at the dreary trailer park in which she lives. Another critic went so far as to accuse the filmmakers not only of peddling Marxism, but also of aiding and abetting the irrelevancy and decline of European cinema. You know a movie has gotten under the skin when reviewers start red-baiting, much less using a single film to dismiss the cinematic production of an entire continent. Still, what's most curious about the attacks isn't the primitiveness of the rhetoric, the trembling outrage, but the sense that these critics see the girl's poverty as somehow insulting, and not just to them personally. For these critics, the very act of making a movie about poor people seems un-American. Maybe it is.

Being poor, after all, is a real downer, and downer movies are un-American, or so it's seemed for the last two decades. Maybe that's why the poor in our movies come off as increasingly exotic. With the white-trash comedy in apparent remission, and so many black characters safely tucked into middle-class plenty, the truly poor are now often cast from the same terrifyingly inbred mold as the hillbillies who did Ned Beatty wrong in Deliverance -- as in Boys Don't Cry or Gummo. Rosetta doesn't sniff glue or kill for kicks, but she is unmistakably poor, with none of the romantic or metaphoric gloss that often makes the indigent palatable. Rosetta isn't like John Steinbeck's noble Joads or even the title character of Robert Bresson's Mouchette, the film that seems the Dardennes' most obvious inspiration. Her poverty isn't expressive of some greater truth; it's her material reality in all its crabbed unimportance. In this sense, she's closer to the impoverished family in Charles Burnett's modern classic Killer of Sheep, in which a man indignantly insists "I ain't poor" even as his life proves otherwise. But unlike the family in Burnett's film, Rosetta is, for all intents and purposes, also very much alone, and it's this sense of her having been cast off by the world that makes her heartbreaking.

Rosetta, played by newcomer Emilie Dequenne with the sort of single-minded determination that sometimes pushes debut performances (and that earned her the Best Actress award at this year's Cannes festival), lives in a meanly furnished trailer with her alcoholic mother. When we first see the teenager, she's dressed in a white coat and hair net and rushing through a series of sterile halls, being hotly chased by a manager. (The Dardennes' hand-held camera looks like it's chasing her, too, but it's just trying to keep up.) Rosetta's just been fired, and in that moment her world has collapsed. "I work well, don't I?" she wails. "Why me, if I work well?" No explanation is offered, and none is necessary, since all that matters is that now she doesn't have a job. And so Rosetta goes searching for work and all that could come with it -- a normal life, as she can only imagine it. The momentum of the search is what drives her, keeps her head out of the oven, and also what propels this nearly plotless story. Rosetta rushes from one store to another -- being poor and unemployed is itself punishingly hard work -- looking for a job that will keep her from falling into what she calls "the rut." What she mainly finds is rejection, but also a decent boss and one friend whose kindness she rewards with stunning cruelty. That the Dardennes don't punish Rosetta in return is proof of their generosity; that we come to care deeply about this sullen, unhappy, resolutely unlovable creature is evidence of their artistry.

ROSETTA | Written and directed by LUC and JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE Produced by the DARDENNE brothers and MICHELE and LAURENT PETIN Released by USA Films | At the Nuart