If hand-held movement is the camerawork of choice of the last half of the 1990s, it nonetheless is expressing only a handful of ideas. The films that don't rely on jittery motion to make an impression of documentary spontaneity, low-budget modesty or charming sloppiness are a minority. Nicolas Roeg's Two Deaths caught the tension of intellectual dueling among boorish, dinner-party sophisticates by shooting participants across a lavish room in jumpy long shots. Most recent, unorthodox hand-held films, however, take the wobbly, unpredictable technique outdoors. Tran Anh Hung's Cyclo implied the morality of its setting was as limpid as the tropical heat, thanks to the film's bobbing, shifting movement across gangland streets in torrid Ho Chi Minh City. Wong Kar Wai's films suggest an uncertain grasp on his hometown, Hong Kong, in part through their shaky visuals, and Eric Rohmer in Rendezvous in Paris communicated the tenuous feelings of his romantic suitors by way of wavering set-ups. Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves insinuated a loss of mooring to physical reality, even, by placement and motion unanchored in concrete fixtures.
Unlike the metaphorical concepts supporting those films, however, Rosetta, the second feature of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (La Promesse), deploys hand-held work for practical measures. The film is almost as close to a subjective point of view as a filmmaker can get, short of positioning the camera, Lady in the Lake-style, where the main character's eyes would be-a literalizing means that has its own drawbacks. Every second of the Dardennes' picture has Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) on or immediately off-screen; much of the time, the crew is only a few feet behind the actress's back.
Much like La Promesse, the directors jump into an impoverished, fast-moving life, and never attempt to put on the brakes for the sake of providing audience comfort. Rosetta's life is haywire: Close to destitute, living in a trailer with her alcoholic, prostitute mother, the young woman desperately wants a job and security. When she is fired or laid off, she clings to walls, co-workers, or produce with animal passion. Her good efforts repeatedly go unrewarded. But the Dardennes take us far from sermonizing about the virtues of earnest labor. Rosetta's struggle is about cold, hard survival. Gaining a position by treachery won't stop her. Only, it makes her flinch, and her betrayal is her first step toward gaining a higher understanding of life.
The usual price for handling the camera manually is imprecision and excess, but, stunningly, the directors prove that to really bring home the character's world and feelings, you have to dig into her intimate surroundings, like the blankets she sleeps with, the water bottle she drinks from, and the forest floor she walks across going to and from home. There is evident art and economy in all this waviness. Though the props are almost all common household and industrial objects, the filmmakers color-code the blues and reds of the film to reflect her feelings of hopelessness and distress. It's abundantly clear that each scene was rehearsed and reduced to make the most efficient impact. Each is crisply short, never carries on for the sake of realism, and could not imaginably go on longer.
Like the directors' first film, Rosetta is much concerned with the thin line between responsibility and fright. The older man and boy of La Promesse act as though they have killed a man, at first purely out of confusion over a fatal accident that is not entirely their fault. The more the boy lives with his belief, he acts with greater accountability and compassion. Rosetta is an uncommonly determined and devoted young woman, exerting great energy to protect and nurse her mother, but at the start she is governed more by fear of them losing what little station in life they have than by her duties and commitments. Rosetta's progress seems to be toward improvement but, in fact, it is toward consciousness. By film's end, as this person's remarkable effort slips toward meaninglessness, literally a miracle seems to be granted to her, perhaps a fitting realization for such a tireless soul.