Director: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Screenplay: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Stars: Émilie Dequenne (Rosetta), Fabrizio Rongione (Riquet), Anne Yernaux (The Mother), Olivier Gourmet (The Boss), Bernard Marbaix (The Campgrounds Manager), Frédéric Bodson (The Head of Personnel), Florian Delain (The Boss’s Son), Christiane Dorval (First Saleswoman), Mireille Bailly (Second Saleswoman), Thomas Gollas (The Mother’s Boyfriend)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1999
Country: France / Belgium
Rosetta Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
RosettaThe title character of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta is a young woman fighting on the margins of society, struggling against her unfairly appointed place in life with all of her might and getting nowhere. She is, in her own way, ferocious and relentless, but because the world is so heavily stacked against her, her ferocity is tragic and moving rather than frightening and unnerving. The Dardennes emphasize her desperate energy by keeping their camera close to Rosetta at all times, honing in on her intense expressions and rarely leaving her immediately physical space. The effect is one of both emotional and existential closeness, as we feel, by the end of the film’s brief, intensely economical 93 minutes, that we have truly shared in her ordeal, experienced it on some level beyond simply watching it unfold. It is in this way that the Dardennes avoid sentimentalizing Rosetta and turning her plight into a didactic lecture on the travails of the Belgian underclass. It is an experience, not a lesson.

Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne), who might be pretty if she weren’t so downcast and anxious, lives in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux), who is more like a petulant child to care for and watch after than a parent. Although she never explicitly articulates it, we get the sense that Rosetta is driven primarily by her desire to not be like her mother—promiscuous, irresponsible, and frequently inebriated to the point of senselessness. Thus her panic whenever she is unemployed, which is exactly how we first meet her, storming through the hallways of a factory after having learned that her trial period is over and her employment terminated. The Dardennes keep their camera right over her shoulder, hustling along behind her as she moves through the building, establishing an immediate sense of movement and, even more importantly, intensity of purpose. For Rosetta, employment is survival, thus she acts in almost animalistic fashion after learning of her termination, barricading herself in the bathroom and refusing to be taken away.

We meet other characters who come in and out of Rosetta’s life, almost all of whom remain (not incidentally) nameless; they are important only insofar as they either help Rosetta or hinder her. Her mother’s boyfriend (Thomas Gollas) is squarely in the latter category, as he supplies her with booze while Rosetta is trying to encourage her to dry out. The manager of the campgrounds where they live (Bernard Marbaix) is unsympathetic to her plight and willing to exploit her desperation. She finds work—temporarily, as it turns out—at a waffle stand whose owner (Olivier Gourmet) eventually gives her job to his worthless son (Florian Delain), thus adding nepotism to the laundry list of hurdles Rosetta cannot overcome.

She meets and befriends a young man named Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), who she allows into her life (in a more conventional film, he would be an obvious romantic interest). Yet, she eventually turns him on when the opportunity presents itself, not because she is cruelly opportunistic, but because she has no other choice. Her need to survive sometimes brings out the worst in her, such as when she is slow to react to Riquet falling in a river and almost drowning because she recognizes that his death would open a job for her. This would seem to make her a monster, but the effect is heartrending rather than horrific, the unfortunate byproduct of having to scrape to fulfill one’s basic needs. Rosetta isn’t look to exploit others or climb to the top, but simply to be “normal.” As she recites to herself at night, “Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta. You found a job. I found a job. You’ve got a friend. I’ve got a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won’t fall in a rut. I won’t fall in a rut. Good night. Good night.”

Following La promesse (1996), which Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne considered their first “true” film (it established both the aesthetic approach and social issues that would define all of their subsequent films), Rosetta confirmed the promise of the Belgian filmmakers’ artistry and firmly established them as a major cinematic force—the true heirs to neorealism. In Émilie Dequenne, who at the time had never acted in a film before, they found a compelling face that could hold every moment of the film, even when her character is seemingly doing nothing. Not surprisingly, Dequenne won the Best Actress prize at Cannes that year and the film took home the Palme d’Or, which the Dardennes would do again seven years later with L’Enfant (2006).

Despite its loose, flow-of-life narrative, the film has an escalating intensity that draws us deep into Rosetta’s world. The Dardennes don’t rely on simple psychologizing or plot mechanics to create identification; rather, in a truly humanist vein, they allow us to see Rosetta unadorned, moving from day to day and place to place. The film establishes a rhythm and a set of recurrences (such as Rosetta trading out her shoes for rubber boots so she can cross a swampy woodland to get home) that give structure without crushing the sense of spontaneous lived experience on which the film thrives. As a slice-of-life parable about the bottom rungs of the social ladder, Rosetta is a small miracle of a film, one that accomplishes so much with seemingly so little and feels all of a piece, not a moment wasted or misused. Rosetta remains a compelling character even though she avoids all pretense of conventional sympathy; she’s not a plucky orphan or an ennobled martyr, but rather an ordinary girl in terrible circumstances in whom we can recognize the fundamental human desires that bind us all together.

Rosetta Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Rosetta is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Conversation between film critic Scott Foundas and filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
  • Video interviews with actors Émilie Dequenne and Olivier Gourmet
  • Trailer
  • Essay by film critic Kent Jones
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 14, 2012

    Like Le promesse, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s previous feature film, Rosetta was shot on Super 16mm and then blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution. Criterion’s excellent high-definition transfer was made from a 35mm blow-up interpositive and then digitally restored, resulting in a clear, well-balanced image that maintains the obvious grain structure of the celluloid while also maximizing detail. The colors in the film are purposefully dowdy and desaturated, although there are strong bursts of primary hues, such as the red on Rosetta’s coat, that are nicely presented. The two-channel stereo soundtrack is presented in a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio transfer from the 35mm magnetic tracks. It sounds clear and clean throughout, with some good separation from time to time to give a sense of space (most notably when Rosetta is crossing the highway, which incorporates some good directionality).
    The supplements on Criterion’s Rosetta Blu-Ray are similar to those found on their edition of La promesse. There is an insightful hour-long video interview of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne conducted by film critic Scott Foundas, as well as separate video interviews with actors Émilie Dequenne and Olivier Gourmet, which together more than make up for the lack of an audio commentary.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

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