Too close and not yet: Touching boundaries

  • Datum 27-01-2011
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Pepita Hesselberth is particularly disconcerted by the particular use of the handheld camera in films such as rosetta. The presented text is part of her dissertation, in which an entire chapter is devoted to the impact what she refers to as a "handheld aesthetics".

Take-off. A girl dressed in an industrial uniform walks steadily through a narrow corridor. A wobbly handheld camera follows her close from behind, staying within close proximity. Left, right, a slamming door, a flight down a staircase. Then a rapid maneuvering through a labyrinth of machinery, jump cut after jump cut, as the camera cannot keep up. And finally: a violent struggle barely captured by the devoted camera, between the girl and the factory manager as she tries to resist her release. Time-out. Heavy breathing.
This is the opening scene of the Belgian film rosetta (1998), directed by the acclaimed brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The film tells the story of the 17 year-old Rossetta (Emilie Dequenne) in her desperate attempts to lead a normal life, despite the harsh circumstances under which she is living it: stuck in a trailer camp with her alcoholic mother, often bereft of food and money, unwilling to accept charity, and unable to find a proper job that lasts for more than a few days. The only thing that keeps her going is her stubborn anger, an anger that is mirrored in the unsteady use of the handheld camera that stays in extreme proximity to her body.

Handheld Camera
Although not branded as belonging to a particular movement, like the Danish Dogme films, in retrospect rosetta can be considered to be part that international trend of films that emerged in the mid- and late 1990s, more or less coinciding with the advent of digital image technologies. Titles include the Danish Dogme hits idioterne (Von Trier, 1998) and festen (Vinterberg 1998), the Dutch films zusje (little sister, Westdijk 1995) and kutzooi (bloody mess, Crijns 1995), c’est arrivé près de chez vous (man bites dog, Belvaux 1992) from Belgium, as well as American cult classics like the blair witch project (Myrick & Sanchez 1999) and elephant (Van Sant 2003). What the films share, despite their many differences in terms of genre and even technology, is in the first place evidently their mode of filming: the use of an often unsteady handheld film or video camera.

Spatial Disorientation
It is this particular use of the handheld camera in these films that is the topic of my writing. It is that which disconcerts me, that which pulls me out of my comfort zone. What is particularly striking about the visual manifestation of the handheld camera in these films is the fact that its optical range is often spatially constrained, despite the increased mobility it affords. That is to say, we seldom see beyond the restricted camera’s eye that stays in close proximity to the action. In rosetta for example, we never know where she is headed until she reaches her destination, and we never get an overview of the spaces she occupies, not even of the tiny mobile home in which she lives. The result is a lack of spatial orientation that puts the viewer in a state of anticipating alertness: it is as if we are there, in a "now" that is inaccessible to us and that forces us to anticipate what is yet to come.
This is further enhanced by the films’ pursuit of a new mode of authenticity, or rather by their faux-realism and the performed immediacy that is characteristic for its aesthetic. Films like kutzooi, lap rouge, c’est arrivé, idioterne and the blair witch project in particular caused disturbance among ill-prepared viewers who, at the time of the films’ release, had difficulties determining whether or not they gave a realistic depiction of the presented events. Even though we know today that these films and new ones like them are clearly staged, I would argue that this "disturbance" has not faded away but rather has gone or always has partially been "underground," part of our embodied perception of the films.

Fabricated Liveness
A recurring feature of the films under consideration is the "subjective" point of view of the camera, which becomes particularly clear in the Dutch film zusje (aka little sister). The film is seemingly shot from the perspective of Martijn’s home-video camera, with which he travels from London to Amsterdam to make a film about his little sister. Though we hardly ever get to see Martijn, his voice comments on most of what "he" films. In zusje we thus see the world from start to finish through the camera’s I/ eye of one of the narrators from within the film’s story. This conveys a very intimate vision of the story world, in which a person looking straight into the camera is not so much a possibility as it is the norm.
As renown filmmaker and critic Peter Forgács has remarked about direct address in home videos, these frequent looks into the camera are projected into a future that coincides with the present moment of our encounter with the film, from the perspective of which the "local time" of the look itself is marked as the past. The sense of "now" that the film thus generates remains fragmented, multiple and ultimately untimely for the viewer. The looks appear to call attention to the lack of distinction between the camera and its fictional operator. However, an awareness of the film’s fictionality instantly breaks down this illusion, which leaves the looks to draw attention to nothing but the performative presence of the camera itself.

Physically Difficult
Although rosetta does not contain these looks into the camera, the film is no less spatially and temporally disorienting. Although the film won the Palm d’Or in Cannes in 1999, it was also fiercely criticized in the years following its release. Reviewers referred to the film as being both "intimate," and "immediate," but also as "claustrophobic" and "suffocating", "disorientingly close" or even "dizzying" and "sickening." Critics also touch upon the fact that, although the camera remains within touching distance of Rosetta, we are hardly if ever allowed access to her feelings, other than her visibly vented frustration. We remain emotionally detached, not through rational distancing practices, like in a post-Brechtian cinema, but rather through an immersion in a sensation, which, according to one commentator, "forces us into her physical plane, intensifying her determination and suffering." (Smith 2004)
rosetta is indeed physically difficult to watch, for there is no escape from the camera’s shaky imagery. But is it true, I wonder, as one reviewer suggests that the fact that "you can’t see anything when it’s pressed up against your face […], it won’t engender any kind of real thought"? (Adams 2002) This view is based on a confusion between physical and emotional space. Physically, extreme proximity does indeed preclude clarity of vision, we know since the famous kissing scene in Proust. Yet what the reviewers’ vocabulary connoting corporeality in my view hints at is something different. What it suggests is that our "thinking" may in fact be provoked on another plane than on that of visual perception and reason. Instead of the lack of clarity such a physiological conception suggests, I speculate that in that combination of seeing and imagining that is film viewing, the extreme proximity "touches" us, so to speak, through the body.

Loosing Presence
Whereas we are spatially constrained by the image frame, in terms of temporality we are trapped in a perpetual present that is inaccessible as it feeds on the erasure of images of past moments and on the potential of what is yet to come. We are constantly invited to virtually "touch" the boundaries of the image frame, and continually tumble into a "now" that remains unattainable as it only serves to thrust us forward into an unknown, virtual, future. As a result the viewer is always untimely in his or her encounter with the captured event. It is precisely this untimeliness and spatial disorientation, I suspect, that is responsible for the discomfort produced in me by rosetta and other films like it. It engenders a sense of loosing one’s own presence in the here and now, if only briefly, time and again.

Pepita Hesselberth

Pepita Hesselberth is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis.

For more information on Hesselberth’s project see