Those of a more masochistic bent are encouraged to bump my grade up a notch or two: if it's a superlative story of stoic suffering you seek, no movie this year is as likely to beat your brow to a bloody pulp.* Those of us who tend to feel wearied, if not bullied, by films that are singleminded in their dedication to making their protagonists' lives sheer hell, on the other hand, may perhaps be forgiven for bemoaning the absence of the gripping moral dilemma and snatches of black humor and good cheer that made the Dardennes' 1997 triumph La Promesse something more than just an artful study in misery. We're talkin' bleak-o-rama here, kids, with a capital B as in Bresson (specifically, Mouchette); there's scarcely a moment that doesn't ring true, and the jittery handheld camerawork is frequently stunning, but the virtuosity is in service of a vision so relentlessly deterministic that it's ultimately numbing. It doesn't help that the title character, who almost never leaves the frame, is rather thinly conceived; Dequenne shared the Best Actress award at Cannes earlier this year (where the film itself won the Palme d'Or, so what the hell do I know?), but while her performance is suitably naturalistic and remarkably disciplined, she's only asked to evince two emotions: rage and determination. (Or both at once: Rosetta's involved in so many frantic scuffles that I began to wonder whether some footage from WWF Smackdown! had been spliced in by mistake.) Even the parts of the movie that work -- and there are some wonderful moments amid the dreariness, no question -- feel disappointingly familiar: in addition to Mouchette (to which it bears a resemblance so strong that it almost seems like an uncredited remake, albeit with a marginally happier ending), both Ken Loach's Ladybird Ladybird and Sandrine Veysset's Will It Snow for Christmas? spring to mind as obvious ancestors, and the powerful final shot might have been even more moving had it not echoed the closing seconds of Boaz Yakin's Fresh. But even if you've never before encountered the Cinema of Despondency, there's a good chance that you'll feel a certain queer lassitude -- maybe even an embarrassing impulse to snort or giggle in the face of very credible anguish. The picture plods along as defiantly as its heroine, giving no quarter; you either surrender to it or you don't. I didn't.
* (Now that's a pull quote!)