Liberal/Miserable


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Directed by I.B. Mizrable
The most emblematic bit of action in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Rosetta occurs twice, and both times it's not of great thematic moment, just curious?oddly curious. The Belgian film concerns a teenage girl who's obsessed with getting a job, and who occasionally fishes in a river near the trailer park where she lives. Twice during the movie, someone falls into the river and has to struggle their way out. No, not just struggle: struggle.

We're obviously not supposed to regard their thrashings as anything strange, but I found it impossible not to. Rosetta is quite as dottily obsessive as its heroine, though in a different way: it has a ravening mania for naturalism. The Dardenne brothers are former documentarians, and their film uses documentary techniques to create the impression that what we're seeing is incredibly close to real life. Yet that river isn't like any real-life river I know.


It's a middling little thing, not the Rhone at flood stage or some other raging torrent. But the people who fall in sure act like it is. Though they're never more than 4 or 5 feet from shore, they splash and flail and throw their arms around wildly like Capt. Ahab about to be sucked into the briny depths by Moby-Dick. The first time this happened, I thought, "What's with this river?is it magical?" The second time, I realized: no magic here. It's a rhetorical river.


As such, it unwittingly reveals the truth of much that surrounds it, which is a truth fundamentally at odds with how I assume the Dardennes want us to understand their film. Regarding the way Rosetta presents people, places, situations and (implicitly) society and the world at large, we're obviously meant to accept, and even be impressed, that the film shows us "how things really are." Such is the constant urging of its naturalistic style. But naturalism here functions as a deceptive veil that disguises the film's crucial distortions regarding nature (e.g., that river), the "nature of things" (i.e., in contemporary society) and human nature. And these distortions all stem from the fact that the film's drama is essentially, though unadmittedly, and perhaps even unconsciously, rhetorical: rather than trying to discover and show us aspects of life as it is, the film molds life to fit its own preconceived ideas.


Those ideas are, at base, Euro-leftist of a tiresomely familiar sort. But that's not the chief source of my complaints against Rosetta, which strikes me as a grand summation of things that are about to make European art cinema disappear down the wormhole of history. Ideological orientation aside, Rosetta is simply boorish: fusty, precious, self-satisfied and totally humorless. As the friend I watched it with said, "Godard could've presented the same polemic with half the bother, and it would at least have had wit."


Indeed, the Godard of Vivre sa Vie (etc.) could easily conjure up a pretty heroine whose travails illuminated the social conditions surrounding her, but who personally was much more than a mere cipher for those conditions. Alas, the Dardennes' Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) is just such a marker. When we first see her, she's let go from the job where she's been a trainee, and flips out. It seems she's a little mentally unbalanced and so has a rabid fixation on being employed, which, not surprisingly, she has a hard time remaining.


This premise alone should suggest a lot about Rosetta's rhetorical tilt. Life reduces to material existence alone, says its reductive materialist philosophy. Capitalism, the bad ogre, not only forces proles like Rosie to live by meaningless employment, but also withholds enough jobs to keep its wage slaves docile and desperately dependent. Please observe one thing, though: no one you know actually resembles Rosetta. Her mania over employment is, shall we say, a tad theoretical. She's representative, supposedly, without being at all typical, which is because she's a little crazy?or something.


Thus do we see the Dardennes subtly cheat at the outset, distorting commonsense understandings of human nature. Of course, since this particular distortion mirrors the central flaw of leftist political philosophy of the past two centuries, perhaps we should be magnanimous and excuse it as, say, Marxist poetic license.


Even making that allowance, the fictional world we find ourselves in remains tediously deterministic. Much of the film's time is occupied by naturalistic noodling: Rosetta changing from her shoes to her rubber boots, knocking around the trailer park, checking her fishing lines, asking for jobs, hassling with her whorish, alcoholic mom. The story's really crucial actions are few but striking: Let go from another job, Rosetta is befriended by Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), a young man who runs a waffle stand. She repays his kindness with betrayal. Knowing he sometimes shortchanges his boss, she rats on him, takes the job he loses, and then forfeits that one too.


Here again, we learn something new about human nature. Common experience might suggest that emotionally needy people who receive help tend to be if anything excessively grateful, not viciously treacherous. Rosetta's scenario, obviously, amends that with the superior wisdom of highbrow theory, to wit: damaged, desperate proles tear each other apart like rats in a cage, because theory says they do. There's a funny, unintentionally revealing passage in the press notes where Jean-Pierre Dardenne recalls, "The actor who plays the part of Riquet asked us: 'But why do I do all this? Because I'm stupid?' We replied that there were no reasons: 'You're not a fool. You're just like that, the way the script wants you to be.'"


The poor actor. He wants to understand his character's actions in terms of the ways people actually behave. He must be told, like a child, that human behavior has nothing to do with it; the characters act this way because the script says they do. You could scarcely find a more concise description of bad art's processes than that.


The American film reviewed here last week, The City, also concerns poor people caught in harsh economic straits, and its vast superiority to Rosetta obviously began in the fact that the filmmaker, David Riker, spent several years living among the Hispanic immigrants to New York that the film concerns. As a consequence, The City's stance toward its subjects is humble, multifaceted and genuinely perceptive. According to Rosetta's press notes, it began with the Dardennes sitting down to write their script, an effort to follow up on the success of their first dramatic feature, La Promesse (a far better film than Rosetta, yet one that subtly anticipates its problems). The idea of doing a bit of research seems not to have occurred.


The result, not surprisingly, is a film that feels like it has never been anywhere near a real trailer park. A film that constantly reveals what it actually is: a vision of lower-class life made by and for comfortably middle-class people who don't care to look beyond their own prejudices and assumptions. Naturally, makers and audiences alike prefer to see themselves as sympathetic to their social inferiors. Yet behind that nominal concern lies an unresolved mixture of contempt, fear, condescension and sentimentalization, all of which effectively and pervasively demeans the subject while privileging the viewer: the Dardennes' implicit self-congratulation at imagining pathetic Rosetta also translates as flattery for our earnest attention to her woes.


There is a word for all this: miserabilism. It's a very fashionable stance nowadays in some circles, but God help those who have to sit through much of it. The sun never shines in the realms that European filmmakers like the Dardennes describe. No one ever smiles. There's never a cheery word or a joke. Capitalism's death rattle drowns out every note of the world's music. Society's unfortunates experience no solidarity or friendship, only abuse and betrayal. Even rivers, you must notice, really suck.


Literally and figuratively, the terrain of Rosetta is an imaginary landscape, and if it were clearly identified as that, I would have far fewer problems with it. The film's obsessive naturalism, though, resists precisely that identification, and thus itself becomes a big part of the problem. This is the same naturalism that's become like a pandemic fungus in Francophone art cinema in the last decade, a highly artificial style that dourly refuses to admit its artifice. In that refusal, it can be seen as exactly the opposite of the Brechtianism that, in vastly different ways, informed the work of both Godard and Fassbinder, who never let you forget the highly self-conscious and individual means they used to transform reality.


Ironically, the purveyors of today's fashionable, naturalistic miserabilism harken back to these very predecessors, Godard especially, for their legitimacy. Yet Godard himself has punctured the pretensions of Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, et al., by deriding them as "the children of Canal +" (the French tv channel and art-film producer) and I have no doubt he'd say the same of the Dardennes. To double the irony, the Dardennes are obviously indebted to Iran's Kiarostami, yet Rosetta also lacks the foregrounding of filmic concerns and authorial attention that distinguishes his work. Indeed, though its pretensions know no limit, Rosetta is actually a big step backwards in cinematic sophistication from the precedents it would most like to be associated with, Kiarostami and Godard.


The fact that a work of such gaseous self-importance and fetishized mopiness won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and was a selection at the New York Film Festival says a lot about the increasing cluelessness and irrelevance of such events, and about the reasons American cinephiles are now turning off to European films in record numbers. Though Rosetta's miserabilism has a built-in constituency on the Continent, on these shores it's too easily identified as that most unappetizing of current phenomena: the art film as castor oil.


Reeling
Whenever a film as great as David Lynch's The Straight Story comes along, my pleasure is always tempered by the feeling that I've missed noting and paying adequate tribute to many of its manifold glories. One such aspect of The Straight Story is its astonishingly beautiful lead performance by Richard Farnsworth. For a few words about that I want to turn the floor over the Kent Jones, the associate programmer of the Walter Reade Theater. The following is from an interview Kent did with Farnsworth for Cahiers du Cinema. My thanks to the author for his permission to excerpt it here:

"I don't really think much about it," said Richard Farnsworth. "People ask me how I get into a character, and I don't have much to say to them. I just learn my lines and let it happen. I don't care much about 'motivation.'"


I reassured him that I was just asking the question because I felt like I had to, and we had a good laugh. All you have to do is observe Farnsworth onscreen?listen to his liltingly calm voice with its slight quaver and watch his serene face, aged in the western sun, and his innately graceful manner of just being?and you know that all questions of "acting" are moot. I will never forget the shock of seeing him on the screen for the first time, in Alan Pakula's very laconic 1978 western Comes a Horseman. This was the first major role that Farnsworth played in movies, an industry in which he had worked since the mid-30s as a stuntman.


"I worked on Gunga Din, on Gone with the Wind, Red River with Howard Hawks...made six movies with John Ford, first was Fort Apache, and I doubled for Henry Fonda?we're about the same size. I doubled for Hank a lot. And I worked on Ford's last western, Cheyenne Autumn."


?Farnsworth's presence on screen has always moved me, even in a mediocre film like Misery or a failure like The Two Jakes: Whenever I watch him, I have a strong sensation that movies are simply a part of life, and that artificial barriers erected for the camera amount to so much vanity. Almost anything can be acted, except what can't be?the sense of a life lived, the way that an individual life inscribes itself on the face, the body, the rhythm of one's movement. And this can be fully disclosed to the camera only by someone in a state of calm, the kind of calm that Richard Farnsworth exemplifies. To stand before the camera without effort or pretense or distanced observation is only possible when there's nothing left to hide, and self-revelation has become a natural part of existence?


In The Straight Story, David Lynch does something that no director has done before, something very intelligent and, I think, passionate. He has set his entire film to Farnsworth's rhythm, not just physically but mentally as well. The Straight Story may follow the path taken by the late Alvin Straight, the man who drove a sit-down lawnmower almost 400 miles, from Iowa to Wisconsin, to visit a brother from whom he had become estranged. But in fact, it also follows the path of Farnsworth himself, taking care not to commit the error of almost every other film ever made about old age by speeding up the process of self-discovery and forcing the moments of epiphany. Of course, it's precisely because Lynch has an actor who holds the screen without apparent effort that he can make his film in this manner, allowing the silent pauses in the conversations just as much weight and importance as the words themselves.


Farnsworth may be the only actor in movies today whose serenity actually carries a force... "I never had a chance as a leading man," he told me. "My knees were always knocking together, my voice was too high, and my face wasn't right." And perhaps he wasn't ready, either. Because it's the traces of wear and tear on Farnsworth, of a hard life that's been fully understood, that finally make him so mesmerizing and moving on screen. I doubt there will be many moments as exquisite this year as the one where Alvin Straight drives up a hill in a rainstorm and pulls into an old barn for shelter. The visual precision of Lynch's and cinematographer Freddie Francis' widescreen framing?you get the precise slope of the hill, followed by the boxlike frame of Alvin's shelter on the lush, green midwestern landscape under a cloudy sky?is one part of the scene's beauty, and Farnsworth's contemplative angle on life and the world makes up the other.


In The Straight Story, life and the world, time and space, merge, and Alvin's journey becomes genuinely metaphysical. This is an effect that is much sought after in films about people near the end of their lives, but it's fully and honestly achieved in The Straight Story because of Farnsworth and everything he brings to the role, and it crystallizes in this one small moment. As in every other scene, the physical labor of going the distance from one place to another is central, and the effort it takes betrays a life of punishing exertion. But Alvin's/Farnsworth's relaxation at the summit affords him a pleasure both simple and profound: of being able to stand and simply look at the world, without fear or anxiety, and feel himself a part of it.


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