Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta
Two nearly utopian moments mark the heart of the films La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999), written and directed by Luc and Jean- Pierre Dardenne. In the first, we find Rosetta at the end of a very long day. She has a made a friend, Riquet, and through that friendship found an off-the-books job at a waffle maker, escaped her alcoholic and sexually profligate mother, and, with Riquet, spent the evening imitating what it might be like sometime to have fun with a friend or in a couple. She is awkward at this thing called relaxing, but she is game; she’ll take the risk of submitting to someone else’s pleasure economy in order to get that thing she wants, whose qualities she describes as she goes to sleep: “Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta. You found a job. I found a job. You have a friend. I’ve got a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won’t fall through the cracks. I won’t fall through the cracks. Good night. Good night.”
Many reviews of Rosetta call this catechistic quasi-prayer the film’s most heartbreaking moment: for Rosetta, all the world of possible desires has been paired down to a friend and a job, a state of attaining some bare minimum of social recognition. Moreover, this is an episode of intimacy, belonging, and sociability that, ultimately, Rosetta can have only with herself, in a private, hoarded space that’s usually occupied by the pain of her ulcer, a condition of attrition that the film suggests is a symbol and consequence of the intensity of aching life-making activity she otherwise goes through every day merely to survive. Even the measured tone of Rosetta’s repetitions expresses the wish to be able to use the French rester, which means not to rest, exactly, but to stay somewhere, over time, in a place to which one can return: I rest here.
When some Belgians saw Rosetta, they understood this scene to exemplify a national crisis, and the government promptly sponsored and passed a law called the “Rosetta Plan” that forced businesses to hire the young Belgians who, like Rosetta, were desperately struggling to gain a foothold of any sort in the increasingly global economy.1 Much contemporary theory defines citizenship as an amalgam of the legal and commercial activity of states and business and individual acts of participation and consumption, but Rosetta’s speech about falling though the cracks reminds that citizenship, in its formal and informal senses of social belonging, is also an affective state, where attachments take shape.
Here, the affects of belonging are all tied up with what happens at the point of production. When the Dardennes describe Rosetta as a “war film,” it is these aspects of the politics of everyday life and contemporary struggle to which they point.2 Indeed, the film opens amid the chaos that ensues when the diminutive girl is fired and physically fights two enormous men to keep from being ejected from another low-skill, low-paying, and repetitive job. She finally leaves that workplace to continue the circle she runs in every day, tracking a pattern from her home, to the town, to the bus, across a field, where she hides her precious “good shoes” — the ones that make her presentable to employers in the service economy — and into a trailer park where she lives, badly, with her mother.
Thus, by the time Rosetta makes this whispered affirmation, we know the emotional costs of her contentment: the impersonal pulses of capitalist exchange have had devastating personal, including physical, effects, and now, momentarily secure, she has optimism about the prospect of becoming what she pridefully calls “a good worker.” This matters so desperately that she rejects state welfare, because she wants to feel that she has earned her value the way “normal” people do, who produce something of value to others. Without membership in the army of laborers, she had no space for even a little cramped fantasy about spaces of the good life or good times ahead; now, with a job, Rosetta’s fantasy is not at a grandiose scale but evokes a scene of an entirely imaginable normalcy whose simplicity enables her to rest unanxiously and, for the first and only time in the film, to have a good night. It matters not that she is unofficial, off the books in all the bureaucratic senses; even in an extremely informal economy, the goodness of the good life feels possible to her and thus feels already like a confirming reality, calming her even before she lives it as an ongoing practice. The ongoing prospect of low-waged and uninteresting labor is for Rosetta nearly utopian, and it makes possible imagining living the proper life that capitalism offers as a route to the good life. That the route is a rut matters not to Rosetta; what operates here are the affects of aspirational normativity, understanding the persistence of which in the project of life-building on the bottom of contemporary class society is the descriptive project of this essay.
Likewise, in La Promesse, our protagonist, Igor, finds optimism for being in the world at the scene of hyperexploited, off-the-books labor, and as in Rosetta, the benefits of bad work are soul-making, not soul-killing. Like the sidekick in the horror movies from which his name comes, Igor works for a bad mastermind — his father, Roger, who runs a racket for illegal immigrant workers, providing for them false papers and substandard, shit-reeking housing in exchange for a never-ending series of exorbitant fees. When, inevitably, they become indebted to Roger, they are employed to work it off by building a big white house for him and his son. Meanwhile, Roger conscripts Igor to work on the white house, as well. He also doctors the migrants’ papers, collects their rent, and executes ordinary upkeep tasks. At the same time, Igor is apprenticed to an auto mechanic, who is not only teaching him a trade but also enabling him to build a go-cart in which to tool around with his buddies. But as the film begins, Roger’s insistence that the son be available to do his bidding gets Igor fired.3 Roger forces this situation because in his view, the child’s labor obligations begin at home.
One day on the construction site, Amidou, an illegal African immigrant who works to pay off his gambling debts, takes a hard fall on the job. While the fall is not fatal, Amidou soon dies from it because Roger, afraid of being exposed as a smuggler, refuses to take him to the hospital. Roger and Igor bury the black Amidou in the foundation of the white house on which he died laboring and lie to Amidou’s wife, Assita, that her husband has fled town to avoid paying off his gambling debts.
But before Amidou dies, he extracts from Igor the titular “promise” to take care of Assita and their newly born child. Igor is haunted by this promise, and his filial commitment is slowly displaced by his turn toward the obligation he incurred to his father’s worker. Meanwhile, Assita is suspicious of Roger, who eventually contracts to sell her into prostitution to get her out of his hair.4 At this point, Igor steps in to hide her from Roger and save her from this fate, yet he does not tell her that Amidou is dead. Like Rosetta, he does not exactly know what he is doing when he enters a plot, if not a life, with Assita. He works out of a headstrong, aggressive incoherence: he abandons an affect he doesn’t want to have to risk having, one he can barely imagine.
For shelter, Igor takes Assita to the garage he used to work in that opens the film — he’s kept the keys to his former home away from home. But Assita refuses to play displaced house with Igor, and it frustrates him, for he cannot bear that Assita does not want to give him gratitude or any other sign of love. As they improvise their new relationship, he is shocked to see that she does not want reciprocity with him, or trust him to have her interests at heart. Indeed, Assita puts a knife to his throat — for she can tell there’s still a secret somewhere. They bicker and scream, but ultimately he forces her to shut up and submit to giving him what he wants: a hug.
What does the hug he forces her to bear stand for? We know that he has softly stalked Assita, peering in the pinhole in their family door, seeing her care for her husband and child in her underwear. The hug is enigmatic, like Igor’s face in those scenes, neither infantile nor sexual, or maybe both, a muddy mess; and when Assita breaks from the clench, she just looks at Igor, uncomprehending as he is, I think. Having experienced a moment of relieving bodily simplicity, he leaves for a smoke and weeps in the dark. In the clench, he had conjured the unadorned affect of reciprocity or being-with that he has longed for and, without much realizing it, dedicates himself to securing the conditions of its repetition.
In these nearly peaceful episodic eruptions, the productive instabilities of the contemporary capitalist economy engender new affective practices, in which children scavenge toward a sense of authentic social belonging by breaking from their parents’ way of attaining the good life. At the same time, the will to attach that the children manifest is not shared, really, by anyone, certainly not the people who make it possible. Happiness exists in the children’s heads, in their commitment to bring life in line with the affect they want to continue experiencing, and above all, in the triumph of their will to engender a silence in the enabling other that can seem like consent, thereby ensuring the continued affective experience of solidity and importance that should have been provided by parents and the family form.5 I say “affect” rather than “emotion” here to emphasize that the children do not know fully what they’re doing, flinging themselves at life in order to be in proximity to a feeling of something that is strangely both enigmatic and simplifying. Their objects of desire are really scenes they orchestrate in order to experience absorption, a sense of being held in a scene, of having reciprocity, and being unanxious somewhere. Yet their optimistic gestures also show how much aggression is involved in lining up life with fantasy, and the films track what it means to make hard bargains under duress to attain proximity to even the most vaguely, inarticulately defined pleasure.
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I thank Melanie Hawthorne, Roger Rouse, and myriad audiences for their engaged and clarifying responses. This essay was written to express my gratitude to and training by the work of Fredric Jameson.
- “Rosetta Plan Launched to Boost Youth Employment,” European Industrial Relations Observatory On-line, www.eiro.eirofound.cu.int./1999/11/feature/be9911307f.html (accessed September 5, 2005). A bill called the “Rosetta Plan” was initiated in Belgium shortly after the film appeared, to try to develop more jobs for chronically underemployed youth within the first six months of leaving school. Reviews suggest that the film was seen as barely fictive in its dramatization of generally contingent economic conditions as well as those among youth, but Rosetta was read as strongly exemplary of a generation of the willing, able, and economically unacknowledged.
- Leslie Camhi, “Soldiers’ Stories: A New Kind of War Film: Work as a Matter of Life and Death,” Village Voice, November 3 – 9, 1999, www.villagevoice.com/film/9944,camhi,9632,20.html.
- The utopian potentials of the impersonality of an apprentice relationship are followed through, complexly, in the Dardennes’ next film, Le Fils (2002).
- This essay focuses on labor, kinship, and the children as the scene of the event in the Dardennes’ films; but that La Promesse specifically articulates the global traffic in manual labor and sex traffic must not go unnoticed, as the kinds of ambivalence raised by the global market for subproletarian migrant labor do not usually apply to the outrage around sexual traffic, which seems more often to provoke moral clarity against indentured servitude, bodily exploitation, and actual or virtual slavery. See, e.g., the magazine Migration, produced by the Geneva-based nongovernmental organization International Organization for Migration. Migration covers many crises of survival, including defining migration as trauma, but its moments of greatest clarity are in the essays on the sexual trafficking of children and young women (including an announcement of a new organization by the entertainer Ricky Martin called People for Children, which arose from his experience of meeting former sex slaves in India). See www.iom.int (accessed March 16, 2006).
- Dave Kehr, “Their Method Is to Push toward Moments of Truth,” New York Times, January 5, 2003. Kehr interviews the Dardenne brothers in this article, suggesting that “though the Dardennes’ films are scrupulously naturalistic, they all belong to the suspense genre, though it is a suspense of character, not of plot. It is not so much a question of what will happen next, as of how the characters arrive, or fail to arrive, at a decision to act.” The “suspense of character” is played out, in their films, intergenerationally: the suspense is how the children will act, not the adults, who are bullied about by chaotic appetites.