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Friday, April 14, 2000


No revenge, no fantasy, no lies

"Rosetta," the unflinchingly bleak Belgian film that took the prestigious Palme d'Or and Best Actress awards at Cannes last year, is emblematic of the cinematic divide between Europe and the States these days. Just take a look at the film's subject matter: an unemployed 17-year-old girl living in a trailer park.

Now if it were Hollywood making this film, it's easy to imagine where this would go: First of all, Rosetta would be a total babe (Drew Barrymore, or maybe Angelina Jolie), she'd be decked out in tacky-but-chic white trash outfits (big hair, halter tops and leopard-skin prints), and -- crucially -- she would pack heat. Her reaction to poverty would be a revenge fantasy of violence: She and her buff James Dean-like boyfriend would kill their oppressors, and go on the run, on a road trip that's equal parts lark vacation and bloody mayhem. (See "True Romance," "Natural Born Killers," "Love and a .45," "Gun Crazy," "Kalifornia," etc.)

A nice fantasy -- living fast and dying young -- but while American filmmakers are unflinching when it comes to savage irony or splattering brains, they are absolutely terrified of depicting the reality of poverty, its desperation and limited options. Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne take their heroine and try to make us understand what it would feel like to be in her position.

Their Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) has to wear the same grungy clothes day after day, her skin is ruddy, her hair lank. Her trailer park doesn't have "cool" -- it barely even has running water. Rosetta's alcoholic mom gives sexual favors to the maintenance man to make sure they have gas. The only "revenge" Rosetta gets is a pyrrhic victory, landing a menial job at the expense of a friend.

It's easy to face poverty when it's set in the Third World, even more so when it's centered on a photogenic young child, as in Brazil's "Central Station." Set smack in the heart of the EU -- Liege -- "Rosetta" offers no comfortable distancing, or cute kids. Dequenne plays the teenage lead with a raging intensity, which shows that the fight for survival is indeed a fight. Whether she's pestering a baker into giving her a job, baiting hooks in a nearby river in the hope of catching some dinner, or physically resisting being "downsized" from her workplace, she never stops moving -- perhaps because she knows that if she does, she's finished.

The Dardenne brothers, former documentary filmmakers, certainly know the terrain. Little details, like how Rosetta has to perilously dart across a highway to get to town and work, are indicative of larger social realities. The obstacles to overcoming marginalization are not just psychological, but physical as well.

The Dardennes retain an objective lens here, using a point of view that places the viewer by Rosetta's side for nearly the entire film. They never give us access to her feelings, though, other than her visibly vented frustration. We are alongside Rosetta as she engages in a terrible betrayal of the one person who's trying to help her, and we're not sure what to think. We understand her desperation, but does that justify her actions?

Like Todd Haynes with "Safe," the Dardennes' viewpoint is utterly detached, forcing us to consider the situation and draw our own conclusions. It's clear enough, though, that the filmmakers wish to show how the ruthless economic Darwinism of capitalism can eat away at our social relations as well.

"Rosetta" also points out in painful detail how our sense of self-worth, even our ability to be part of society, is tied to being able to find and keep a job, something not guaranteed in an economic system that tolerates (or, some would say, requires) systemic unemployment.

Nevertheless, misery is a hard tonic for most viewers to down, and "Rosetta" is a particularly challenging film in that regard. It's so based in dour social realism that one wonders why the Dardenne brothers didn't go the documentary route. In the name of realism, they rule out not only "art" (in the sense of how they present the story; we again get shaky hand-held camera-work to signify "real") but they also refuse to enter into the psychological or allegorical realm.

This is where someone like Lynne Ramsay -- whose film "Ratcatcher," a similarly bleak tale of urban poverty that opens later this year -- beats them hands down, through both her more impressionistic style, and her acknowledgment of the fact that alongside even the most grinding poverty, there are moments of fun, tenderness, even joy. The unrelenting bleakness of "Rosetta" certainly makes for a powerful experience, but not one most viewers will care to repeat anytime soon.

"Rosetta" is playing at Le Cinema at Bunkamura in Shibuya.

It's the end of the millennium in NYC, and Jesus Christ (Martin Donovan) -- call him JC -- is getting ready for Armageddon, booting up his Powerbook to open the Book of Life. This piece of divine software, once loaded, will signal the end of the world, and print out the names of the true believers who will accompany JC back to heaven -- barring, of course, a system error.

Checking into a posh hotel with his sidekick Mary Magdalena (singer PJ Harvey, in a look-good-and-do-nothing role), he begins to have second thoughts about this end-of-the-world business. And therein lies this film's thin premise: What if Jesus was just as self-doubting, angst-ridden and cool as every other protagonist in a Hal Hartley film?

Unfortunately, the millennium theme is already past its sell-by date, and Hartley's cute idea of placing biblical characters in modern NYC gets old fast. Thomas Jay Ryan, fresh off a virtuoso performance in Hartley's "Henry Fool," brings some droll humor and spark to the proceedings as Satan, but the film's philosophical musings range from maudlin to trite. The film's attempt to play with biblical minutiae also assumes a more intimate knowledge of Christianity than is likely to be the case with Japanese audiences.

Shot on digital video, "Book of Life" is a great advertisement for the new medium: It looks gorgeous, and Hartley's use of editing and in-camera trickery gives the film a flashy, free-form look, full of bold colors and time-lapse motion echoes. (Although there is more than a little cribbing from Chris Doyle.)

But while this experimental style is a nice change from Hartley's usual, deliberate and exquisitely choreographed camera-work, it often seems as if the style is there simply to try and liven up the rather static proceedings. Flash for the sake of flash. A harsh criticism, perhaps, but when PJ Harvey's most notable scene involves her -- for no apparent reason -- singing along with one of her songs on a Walkman, the specter of music video vapidity looms large.

"Book of Life" is now playing at Uplink Factory daily at 3, 4:30, 6, and 7:30 p.m. For more info, call (03) 5489-0750.

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