Rosetta, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s stark portrait of a teenage girl struggling to find a job she can hold onto, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. In her film debut, Belgian actress Émilie Dequenne (only 17 at the time of filming) won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance in the title role. It’s largely Dequenne’s performance that keeps the film, recently released by The Criterion Collection, so captivating. Rosetta is a tough character to like—she’s almost more like a hungry stray dog than a person—and Dequenne bravely resists portraying any trait that might endear her to the audience.
When we first meet Rosetta, she has just learned she’s been fired from her job at a factory. She is livid with her unexplained dismissal, throwing a desperate tantrum to absolutely no positive effect. Living with her gutter slut mother (Anne Yernaux) in a dingy trailer at a campground called The Grand Canyon, Rosetta lives a life of deadening routine. While her perpetually drunken mother gives sexual favors to the landlord in order to pay the bills, Rosetta is hustling to find another job. She’s very firm in her principles. No handouts. No welfare. No charity of any kind. All she wants is a legitimate job so maybe she can stop trying to trap fish with broken bottles and coat hangers.
Rosetta doesn’t benefit from a conventional discussion of the plot, what little there actually is. We repeatedly see Rosetta performing many daily tasks such as putting on work boots or filling a water bottle. She dodges traffic while crossing busy streets on her way home. All she seems to subsist on are waffles. In fact, her modest aspiration is to work either as a waffle maker or vendor. Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione) is a waffle vendor of questionable ethics. He’s the closest thing to a friend in Rosetta’s life, but based on her hardscrabble existence she’s accustomed to distrusting everyone around her.