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Handheld Torture

The documentary-style Rosetta travels into a heart of darkness -- and stays there

For whatever reason, this latest Belgian import to the United States has an almost identical title to the year's other major Belgian import. What's more, there are similarities, in both subject matter and technique, between Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's Rosetta, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Patricia Toye's interesting but less lauded Rosie, which opened in Los Angeles this past August.

While Toye used handheld cameras to follow around a 13-year-old girl with a miserable home life, the Dardennes use handheld cameras to follow around a 17-year-old girl with a miserable home life. Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) lives in a trailer park with her alcoholic, promiscuous mother (Anne Yernaux). So much of her time is devoted to playing parent to her helpless mom that Rosetta seems to live in a vacuum, without friends, culture or any other life. On top of that, she is frequently doubled over with painful cramps.

So empty is her existence that she obsessively tries to convince herself that it isn't the abnormally blighted torment that it most clearly is. "My name is Rosetta," she mutters to herself in bed. "I'm normal. I have a job. I have a normal life."

The problem is that she doesn't have a job for long. In the opening sequence, she loses the job that defines all that is orderly in her life, and the loss drives her into a violent frenzy. Getting another job becomes her sole goal, but it's not such an easy thing for someone with virtually no social skills.

For Rosetta isn't normal. Her wretchedness, the strain of looking after her mother, her obsession -- all have deprived her of any chance to learn how to relate to other people, which consequently makes it hard for her to fit in, which makes her weird, and so on, in an endless loop.

A young man (Fabrizio Rongione) who works at a waffle stand tries to be her friend -- the sexual-romantic elements of his intentions are not entirely clear -- but Rosetta cannot see anyone beyond their usefulness in leading her to a job and thus to her much-desired "normal" life.

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, former documentarians, shoot nearly everything with handhelds to give the story an approximation of documentary reality and immediacy; they make a point of showing, rather than explaining, everything to us. It's a claustrophobic style with long takes, grainy texture and almost no music. They used the same technique in their previous film, the wonderful La Promesse (1996).

In La Promesse, this technique worked much better: It was hung on a structured narrative with a moral subtext. Here the only structure is from miserable to more miserable to most miserable; and Rosetta's life is so driven that there's almost no room for moral choices.

We are relentlessly tied to her point of view, yet she is such an alien that her actions are often simply baffling. By the end we have pieced together some sense of her motivations and some sense of empathy, but the process of getting there is a lot of heavy lifting for surprisingly little payoff. Torturing the audience doesn't seem like the best aesthetic strategy.

 
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