dir. Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Starring: Emilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux, Olivier Gourmet
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"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." -- Rosetta (1999)Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) doesn't know the meaning of the word "privilege" and worst of all, if she's ever experienced love, it's not even a fleeting memory. It's been erased by years of poverty, abuse and neglect. She's 15-years-old, lives in a squalid trailer park with her slovenly alcoholic mother and holds down a job in a bakery to raise enough money to leave home and live her own life. She works herself to the bone for slave wages. Being underage allows her to be legally exploited by employers.
"Privilege" should, frankly, be a dirty word. Not much of consequence can really come from it and so often it leads to the exploitation and/or abandonment of those bereft of it. If "privilege" was part of her vocabulary, Rosetta would definitely foist it as a salty epithet.
She loses her job at the bakery - not because she isn't a good worker, but because her employer uses his prerogative to indulge in some nepotism to replace her.
She's back to square one. Her Mom is fed copious amounts of booze by the scumbag who runs the trailer park in exchange for sexual favours.
Things are definitely not looking up.
We are, of course, watching a movie by the Dardenne Brothers. And if the subject matter wasn't enough to tip us off, their unique verité approach to cinematic storytelling is the clincher.
The Brothers not only retain the effective point of view they employed in La Promesse, they up the ante bigtime. The camera is ALWAYS with Rosetta, but she's such a bundle of action and forward movement that we are, more often than not, following her (an approach Darren Aronofsky has successfully borrowed - most notably in his exquisite The Wrestler).
Not only is the camera following Rosetta, but very often, it (very intentionally) has a hard time keeping up with her. She's usually and literally a few steps ahead of us. Again and effectively, the Dardennes continue the technique of placing us within the central character's point of view that they so astonishingly handled in La Promesse.
Being just behind her adds tremendously to the realist conceit that allows us to discover the story with her. Curiously, when the camera catches up to her or is in close on the action, it's perched just above the shoulder near her head. It alternately establishes intimacy and urgency.
This consistency to the mise-en-scene is ideal in the telling of a very harrowing story. This is a child who is so desperate to work that she is capable of doing anything and everything to get and/or keep a job. Though one of her actions is borderline nasty, we always empathize with both her plight and actions.
For me, one of the fascinating choices the Dardenne Brothers made is in choosing the name Rosetta for our main character. It's primarily an Italian name given to women and translates as "beautiful rose".
There's no doubting the girl next door beauty of actress Emilie Dequenne (who plays the title character and also won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival) and roses, in and of themselves are not only imbued with beauty, but most varieties have prickly stalks that protect them from being easily plucked. A number of varieties have such tight petals that it's virtually impossible to get at the rose hips - if, in fact, any actually exist.
And, of course, Rosetta is very closed off - both inscrutable and impenetrable. When she actually allows someone into her life, we're happy for her, but when she does something to remove this person from her life, we feel deflated (on one hand), but completely understanding (on the other).
Self-preservation does indeed drive her, but it's not the selfish variety displayed by Igor's father in the Dardennes' La Promesse. This is a child who seeks solace in both work and what work provides - a basic living, and one that is going to be sadly solitary, but at least on her own terms.
Rosetta is also another interesting choice for a name since it is a word used to describe a very specific orbit in space - one that seems so similar to how Rosetta moves as a character - especially when in peril or distress.
The Rosetta Orbit is when a particle revolves around the opening to a Black Hole - getting close, but never being completely sucked in. It's as if the orbit is responsible for near-suction and salvation. (If anyone had a Spirograph as a kid, the Rosetta orbit is similar to the sort of movement patterns created when a point in a circle revolves within another at a fixed point.)
When Rosetta is in distress she becomes extremely physical and never stops moving - so much like a Rosetta Orbit, it seems impossible to think this was not an intentional subtext on behalf of the Dardenne Brothers.
Finally, this is what makes the Dardennes so unique in contemporary cinema. Every move, every beat, every breath is infused with intent, but never, ever does it seem like they're overtly forcing the action. Rosetta is our way in and out of this extraordinary and quite perfect film.
It is, however, her indelible character who finally makes all the decisions and we discover them, whether we like them or not, when she does.
Rosetta is, like many of the disenfranchised of our world, ready to plunge into an abyss, but is saved by her clinging onto BASIC hopes and dreams - oscillating in a hypotrochoidal pattern with the Dardenne Brothers clinging to her with their lens. They observe her, almost macroscopically - as if her life, her state of being was a form of quantum mechanical existence.
Is the fate of Rosetta, and all those like her, to oscillate forever, just beyond a Black Hole? The humanity of the Dardenne Brothers and this tremendously moving film suggests otherwise. At least, that's what WE want it to suggest.
"Rosetta" is available in a brand new Director-Approved Special Edition Blu-Ray from the visionary Criterion Collection. It features a sumptuous restored high-def digital transfer that director of photography Alain Marcoen supervised, an interview between film critic Scott Foundas (who, not unlike the disc of "La Promesse", delivers his questions in a manner that feels too rarefied) and the directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (who provide lengthy, informative and frankly, inspiring responses). There's also an interview with actors Emilie Dequenne and Olivier Gourmet, a trailer, a brand new English subtitle translation and an essay by film critic Kent Jones. This one's another Criterion Collection keeper.