INTERVIEW: "Rosetta" Directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Cinema of Resistance
by Anthony Kaufman
“We are one person, four eyes,” say the brothers Dardenne, the Belgian directing duo that floored audiences on the last day of the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and took home the coveted Palme d’Or for their relentless portrait of “Rosetta,” a young woman determined to hold down a job and just live a normal life in modern Belgium. Keeping the momentum of the film on high gear with her striving, persistent gait is newcomer Emilie Dequenne, who won Cannes’ Best Actress prize for her film debut. Working from very basic concepts (“the wish to work with a woman,” the futility of Kafka‘s “The Castle,” a starting point that “was not a story, but a person”), the Dardennes eventually found their Rosetta amidst the life and freedom of location shooting.
At a cost of $2 million (they shot 60 hours of footage), the Dardenne brothers used their background in documentary filmmaking to create a riveting portrait of a young woman struggling to survive. Born in Belgium in 1951 and 1954 respectively, Jean-Pierre and Luc have produced over 60 documentary films since 1975, as well as 5 feature films, including “La Promesse,” which garnered Best Foreign Film awards in 1997 from both the L.A. and National Societies of Film Critics. The Dardennes spoke to indieWIRE about creating film that resists control and leads to truth. USA Films acquired “Rosetta” during Cannes and will open the film this week in New York and Los Angeles.
indieWIRE: You did documentary work for many years. Can you talk about going from non-fiction to fiction?
Jean Pierre Dardenne: The documentaries that we used to make, you go to film a reality that exists outside of you and you don’t have control over it — it resists your camera. You have to take it as it is. So we try to keep that aspect of documentary into our fiction, to film something that resists us. So we try not to show everything or see everything. The character and the situation remains in the shadows and this opacity, this resistance, gives the truth and the life to what we’re filming.
iW: How do you create a situation that resists the camera?
Jean Pierre: Here’s an example, we put on ourselves limitations. For example, when we shot the scenes in the trailer, we specifically didn’t want the walls to be movable; we wanted the walls to remain as they are in any trailer. This is a way to proceed; it’s really an attitude. We don’t want to be God, we don’t want to dominate anything. We want to remain on the level of the things as they are and not impose on them.
iW: Are there moments in the film that came out of spontaneity?
Luc Dardenne: We shot in super-16, which allows you to have very long shots, some shots would be 10 minutes, many were 5-8 minutes. We rehearse the actors a lot and we don’t put anything on the floor for the actors to follow. So even if you organize exactly what they are going to do, they are never going to do it the same way. For example, the very last shot, because we did it that way — open to changes and not marking it down — things happen, tensions are created from that, because you really don’t know what’s going to happen when you shoot. In the last scene, we did maybe 10 takes, and chose the last one, because the more she did it, the more tired she got. And the moment when she falls is the moment where we improvised in the frame. We didn’t plan it, so those are the happy accidents, however rehearsed you are, there’s still spontaneity that you don’t control and in a way you provoke.
iW: Do you see film as a social activism in any way?
iW: Then entertainment?
Luc: A little.
Jean Pierre: Hopefully, it’s also entertaining. It’s difficult to say, what do you mean when you say, “social activism”?
iW: In making a film about this woman, you’ve also made a film about unemployment. So is that part of your agenda, or does that theme come out organically from telling her story?
Jean Pierre: Yes, our first desire is to make this portrait of a woman who is a fighter, a survivor. She really believes that if she doesn’t find a job and a place in society, she is going to die. So we had to put ourselves and put the camera in that state of mind. And once you’ve done that, you have to address the moral issues, to kill or not to kill, to commit suicide or to not commit suicide. Of course, by doing this, you are going to portray society and unemployment. We know what we’re doing, but this is not the first aim; it comes with it, but it’s not the reason why we do it.
iW: Can you comment on the use of the handheld camera? It mirrors the character’s obsession-compulsion, it’s very much an obsessive camera.
Jean Pierre: You’re right. But how we do it doesn’t matter. How you get it matters and you obviously got it.
iW: With your last film, “La Promesse” and this film, a gritty, sort of low-budget style emerges. Could you conceive of making a film with bigger equipment, a bigger budget, a crane at your disposal, for example?
Luc: This is a house that we like to live in. Filming is like a house, you have to feel comfortable in it.
iW: Why have you chosen to make narrative films, and strayed away from documentaries? Do you find it more fulfilling?
Jean Pierre: It’s more exciting, because you put together a group of 20 people, and every morning you get together and you start giving life to creatures that don’t exist, characters that don’t exist, and not only do they exist in front of you, but they escape from you, you can’t control them anymore. You can’t exhaust the possibilities. In documentaries, you’re confronted with reality, you can not manipulate or move it. It’s given to you the way it is, and here you can manipulate.
iW: How many days did you shoot?
Jean Pierre: 11 weeks.
iW: For such a simple film, that seems rather long?
Luc: We shot a lot of footage, we shoot many versions of the same sequence. Sometimes we shoot the scene, look at the dailies, aren’t happy with it, so we go back and shoot it again. We keep all the sets until the end, until the editing is absolutely over. We’d rather have the opportunity to re-shoot a scene than to rent a crane.
iW: Can you talk about the sound briefly? The motorcycle, her breaths, her steps. . . they’re so important to the film. Did you conceive of that at script stage, was that always part of the film?
Jean Pierre: On the set, we starting hearing the sounds very clearly, then after a week or two, we started realizing how important it was. For us, that’s the most beautiful part of making a film, when you’re shooting and you find those ideas and make them part of the film.