ESFS Festivals

“Rosetta” Movie Review by Daniel Barnes

Rosetta film

Rosetta (1999; Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)


By Daniel Barnes

There persists an idea that the Dardenne brothers create aimlessly verisimilar films, but now that I’m five movies deep into their filmography (deep enough to create my first Dardenne Brothers Power Rankings), it’s clear that they shrewdly and meticulously structure their narratives, while retaining an electric and unpredictable authenticity from moment to moment. If their most recent release Two Days, One Night was “12 Angry Men meets the world economic crisis,” then their 1999 Palme d’Or winner Rosetta is Mouchette meets The Passion of the Christ, with the tortured Savior recast as a heroically stubborn, barely tolerable, and marginally employable teenage girl.

Off-the-grid poor and saddled with a useless alcoholic mother, Rosetta (Émelie Dequenne) enters the film like a wild animal, attacking the manager who furloughed her from her factory job, and grabbing at lockers and bathroom stalls while security officers try to drag her away. The camerawork is equally violent, clomping heavily through the forest with Rosetta as she visits her secret stashes and fishing lines, finally arriving at the campground where her mother barters sex for bottles. There are several intense physical confrontations in Rosetta, awkward grapples and flails that border on slapstick while holding onto an element of danger, and the Dardenne brothers and their cinematographer Alain Marcoen shoot them as though the camera were just another wrestler.  It may feel random and raw and unformed, but there is a keen sense of onscreen and off-screen sound and space in every long take.

Forced to weather-strip their drafty trailer with toilet paper and soothe her stomach pains with a hairdryer, Rosetta yearns for the security of employment, and she begins hungrily eying a position at a local waffle stand. She schemes to befriend a dim-witted waffle stand employee named Riquet (the scene where they share dinner while listening to a tape of his drum practice is strangely funny and endearing), and when that proves to be a dead-end, she considers more drastic and soul-deadening options. Rosetta is a study in contrasts. She has the angelic face of a young girl but the broken posture and heavy gait of an old washerwoman. She is fiercely independent, but in a way that seems more resentful than proud. And while she wants the unemployment benefits for which she’s ineligible but refuses to collect her rightful welfare. In other words, she has internalized the cruelty and caprice of capitalism.

Like most (if not all) of the Dardenne brothers’ films, Rosetta examines the enormous burden of poverty, but especially the burden of going it alone. Rosetta lives in a world where empathy equals suicide, but only when Rosetta expresses a need for compassion and assistance from someone else can she possibly achieve grace. Dequenne does tour de force work as Rosetta, alternating between calculation and desperation and defeat, keeping a terse and thorny demeanor while giving us glimpses of the scared and exhausted teenager underneath.

It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same actress who played the relentlessly plucky hairdresser in Not My Type.  She matches the Dardenne brothers’ severity beat for beat, making Rosetta boldly unlikeable but admirably resourceful, so ferocious a survivor that it might just kill her.  Behind every one of Rosetta’s conniving maneuvers and savage outbursts lies an inherently human need to prove her worth, and an innocent belief that she can achieve her dreams, even if her only dream is to not “be left by the wayside.”

Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.