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.
With its crushingly barren mise-en-scène, the Dardenne’s leave little room for levity. Rosetta is humorless, uneducated, and generally coarse in her behavior. The film is a character study of a young individual who, on the surface, appears to have not yet developed much character. But her fiercely driven work ethic says an awful lot about her, as well as her steadfast insistence on doing everything for herself. The Dardenne’s pose some interesting questions, not the least of which being whether or not Rosetta should continue trying to assist her hopeless, scumbag mother. While it’s clear she is being held back by her mother, she still feels duty-bound to stick with her.
Criterion has included a pair of substantial supplemental features on the Rosetta DVD. The lengthiest is an hour long interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne discussing (in French with English subtitles) all aspects of Rosetta. An 18 minute interview with actors Émilie Dequenne and Olivier Gourmet (who plays Rosetta’s waffle stand boss) provides additional points of view. This is all worthwhile material. The DVD booklet contains an essay by film critic Kent Jones.
Rosetta is a fairly depressing film, but it also manages to achieve a vaguely uplifting effect. Nothing especially tragic happens, it’s just that the mundaneness of Rosetta’s dead end life makes one wonder why she even bothers to keep trying. The fact that she does (and with such an instinctive sense of personal pride) is strangely inspiring.