The choice of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's Rosetta as recipient of Cannes' Best Film and Best Actress awards shocked some and surprised many in 1999. Tales abound of distributors and critics who had given its official screening a miss, trusting the vibe that dismissed it as merely downbeat and thoroughly minor.
The decision of the jury (led by David Cronenberg) was widely interpreted as essentially political – a raspberry in the face of those Hollywood forces that have come to increasingly rule the commerce at Cannes. As provocative as this gesture was, the choice was in fact completely just. Rosetta is – alongside Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (1997) and Tsai Ming-liang's The River (1997) – one of the very greatest films of the '90s.
What the film is nominally about can be summarised in a sentence. Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne), a Belgian teenager, desperately wants a job. Her entire sense of self – her feeling that she is not sliding into a rut, like her alcoholic mother – is bound up with this single-minded ambition. Rosetta is fiercely – sometimes illogically – ethical. Her refusal to accept any form of handout shades into a near-pathological mistrust of all other people.
The plot comprises little more than this: Rosetta losing a job and searching for another, several times over. The melodrama that one keeps expecting to see – of violence or sexual abuse – never eventuates. Yet few films have the power or sheer monumentality of Rosetta. It makes us feel the killing weight of every object, the difficulty of every gesture, the awkwardness of every interaction.
Rosetta – a sullen, driven, unglamorous, entirely ordinary teenager – undergoes a kind of transfiguration before our eyes. Without once losing her tearing, fraught contact with reality, she becomes for us a veritable Joan of Arc. Her screen presence ignites every kind of passion within us: love, exasperation, compassion, social indignation. Some viewers will inevitably compare her with Björk in Dancer in the Dark (2000). But Rosetta is no idealised projection of a misty fantasy – and the extraordinary performance of Dequenne attains a fusion of craft and pure being that the cinema is rarely privileged to showcase.
How many movies – beyond a few horror-thriller specials – make viewers hyper-conscious of the hero's breathing? Rosetta is a film completely geared to the physicality of its main character; it is almost as if the movie and her form a single, pulsating entity. We accompany Rosetta every step of her way, plunging down corridors, through heavy traffic, across lawns. Every piece of terrain is a gauntlet. Whenever she ceases moving, the world around her suddenly stops dead – and then the tears, the dread and the disturbed breathing return.
The film's energy is so relentless and intense that it is easy to find oneself somatically sharing Rosetta's pain – the knots in her stomach (due to menstrual cramping) as much as the constant mental and emotional strain she experiences.
The Dardennes employ a form of seeming documentary realism – hand-held camera, direct sound recording, no music score, naturalistic acting – that reaches beyond superficial gimmickry to sublime and exacting poetry. Reacting, like Kiarostami, against a cinema of digital special-effects, they uncover a breathtakingly expressive power in the simplest, most everyday things: a motorbike darting in and out of frame around Rosetta; or the secret, furtive rituals she pursues in order to eat a little better. Previously in cinema history, only Maurice Pialat or John Cassavetes have reached this sort of summit.
The experiments in a free, immediate style by the likes of the Dogme filmmakers or Michael Winterbottom (Wonderland, 1999) fall far short of the richness that the Dardennes achieve here. This is because, ultimately, they are after something much greater than a simple you-are-there thrill.
As in their earlier masterwork, La Promesse (1996), the Dardennes take us completely inside the subjective world of a young battler, and then, mid-way, sharply throw us between the horns of a moral dilemma. Rosetta's longing for work eventually compels her to do something so reprehensible that it devastates both its victim and us, the audience that has come to identify with her completely.
It is through this bold, dramatic technique that the Dardennes sketch both a social system and its analysis. The film acutely explores the process of dehumanisation: how individual energies of will and hope can so easily be twisted into malice and alienation.
Although, in many ways, Rosetta evokes the work of Robert Bresson – especially Mouchette (1967) – this is, as it were, a politicised Bresson. It tracks the roots of the world's misery not to a spiritual or existential malaise, but the daily conditions of life and labour. On this level, it twins with Sandrine Veysset's very moving Will it Snow for Christmas? (1996).
Indeed, the film literally brought about a social change – the passing in Belgium of the "Plan Rosetta", a law that prohibits employers from paying teenage workers less than the minimum wage. How often can the cinema boast of such a noble achievement?
© Adrian Martin February 2001