In hindsight, the rare double Cannes winner (Best Picture and Best Actress) looks to serve as the basis for the predominant Social Realist movement of European cinema in the 2000s. Though the Dardennes' 'La Promesse' predates this, arguably 'Rosetta'’s vigorous documentary techniques and intense focus on its working class protagonist jumpstarted this movement. It’s still a magnificent picture - bold, unconventional but brilliant storytelling at its core rendered even more exquisite by the Criterion Blu-ray treatment.
Rosetta (1999) dir. Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne
Starring: Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux, Olivier Gourmet
By Alan Bacchus
Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) is a sad case, living in a trailer park, subject to the whims of her irresponsible mother who prostitutes her body to the superintendant to pay for their heating bills. She has everything working against her. But shining through this cloud of poverty and depression is a fierce determination to succeed. The Dardennes, armed with their handheld camera, follow the impressive Émilie Dequenne around the city with the utmost of urgency, a thrilling journey of body and soul.
Émilie sets her sights on a job at a waffles stand – a meager low-paying job but a legitimate occupation which instills pride in her work. That said, her means of achieving this are dubious. Not unlike how her mother sells herself to their landlord, Rosetta ingratiates herself with her friend, Riquet, who works the stand to convince his boss (Dardennes stalwart Olivier Gourmet) to hire her. The job doesn’t last long when she’s let go in favour of the boss’s son. The result is a magnificent scene for Dequenne, a violent and desperate anger-fueled fit of rage.
Rosetta’s next step is even more dubious, as she rats on her boyfriend for skimming the till and stealing from the boss. It’s a devastating turn of events; a heartless betrayal by Rosetta, the anguish of wish is expressed on the quiet intensity of Dequenne’s remarkable face.
When Rosetta’s mother lapses into alcoholism, thus threatening her life, Rosetta’s priorities are in conflict, forcing her to make some even more powerful life decisions. All the while the Dardennes keep their camera tethered to Dequenne’s shoulder for maximum emotional impact.
Rosetta is the second of the Dardennes' continuing series of Social Realism pictures which target the poverty-stricken urban peoples. After La Promesse and Rosetta, Le Fils and L’Enfant impressively furthered their examination of the impoverished. The thrill of the Dardennes' modus operandi is their ability to laser in on their characters so precisely that we become invested and involved in even the most insignificant of activities in their lives, including Rosetta’s fixation on her makeshift fish-trap, which she’s placed in the river and checks every day. It’s slightly pathetic, but it's an indication of her active desire to do anything, however futile, to be self-determining and self-reliant.
The greatness of the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is the profound nature of scenes like this.
Rosetta is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.