Now she is finally able to “see” him back, to acknowledge the impact of her actions on another who cares for her, to accept their mutual obligations, and to entertain the possibility that he may now forgive her.
It’s now more than 15 years since Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne won the Palme d’Or with Rosetta, and if the intervening years have familiarised art house audiences with the brothers’ realist style and socially engaged content (last seen in 2014’s Deux Jours, Une Nuit), their breakthrough still packs a devastating punch. Unknown 18-year-old Emilie Dequenne won the best actress award at Cannes for her fearless portrayal of the eponymous heroine’s quotidian struggle against a vicious mix of poverty, insecurity, and shame to conquer the fortress of society by landing some kind of permanent employment.
Set in the Dardennes’ preferred blue-collar milieu, the industrial town of Seraing, Liege, the film opens in medias res, with a rapid handheld camera chasing Rosetta as she storms through a nameless factory, trying to find out why she is suddenly out of a job. (A slower version of this following-from-behind technique is used to generate suspense at the start of the Dardennes’ Le Fils (2002), when Olivier Gourmet’s carpentry teacher spies on a new recruit to his technical college.) In Rosetta the restless camera registers an energy on the brink of despair, as Dequenne’s character charges through a round of humiliations, setbacks, and short-lived victories in her attempt to build a “normal life.” Her constant fear is that she will not escape “the rut” of living with her alcoholic mother in a static trailer stranded in the misleadingly named Grand Canyon, a low-rent trailer park.
Part of the film’s visceral power stems from the way it instantiates what Laura Marks (writing about some rather different films) has termed “haptic visuality.” In Rosetta this means an abidingly tactile sense of poverty, hunger, and marginalisation, whereby these stresses are always embodied and felt, never abstracted or prettified. Set in a damp Belgian autumn, the film relays the textures of wet streets, muddy grass, and draughty windows stuffed up with tissue paper. Its arsenal of reality effects includes naturalistic performances, a realist mise-en-scène grounded in acutely observed but deliberately unaestheticised locations, and the repetition of diurnal actions — most notably Rosetta changing from her unremarkable black boots into wellingtons hidden in a pipe on the wooded boundary of the trailer park, an event that is shown four times in the film.
Even in such narratively “redundant” moments, Rosetta is a very long way from the slow cinema trend of recent years. The Dardennes’ gaze is never relaxed enough to offer the pleasures of contemplation. Instead it is driven by the pace of their heroine’s desperation, anchored in Rosetta’s endless, anxious motions: hastily eating a waffle at the bus stop, arguing with her mother over selling sex for drink, scrabbling with a spoon to unearth worms for some illicit fishing on the bank of a chilly pond. When Rosetta throws her baited bottle back into the water, the resulting impact is largely hidden behind the trunk of a silver birch. In their refusal to restage and “improve on” this shot with a bigger splash, centre screen and unobscured, the Dardennes subtly install another reality effect. However, the impact of Rosetta is an entirely worked-upon achievement, rather than one gained through the accretion of contingencies.
The final sequence follows from Rosetta’s betrayal of her only friend, Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione, who also plays the husband in Deux Jours), in order to take over his job selling waffles. Consumed by guilt, she suddenly quits the new job and retreats to the trailer, where she boils an egg and then sets about trying to gas herself. But the gas runs out, so she has to buy a refill and painstakingly haul it back from the caretaker’s shed. It is at this point that Riquet arrives on his noisy Mobylette, in a sorry echo of an earlier scene when he came to tell Rosetta of the chance to work for his boss. As she falls to the floor, collapsing against the fat blue gas cylinder, Riquet cuts the engine, and Rosetta fully breaks down for the first time in the film, her sobs the only sound to be heard. She now clings to the gas bottle as an instrument of death, as she had earlier clung to a huge sack of flour as if her (new) life depended on it — which it did. The parallelism is not subtle, but in a film of few symbols it is hugely effective. (Again, compare Le Fils.) Riquet momentarily moves into the frame and lifts Rosetta up. As she stands, her face flushed and blotchy from crying, the camera reframes for a headshot and she looks offscreen toward Riquet for several seconds, calming a little. A cut to the end credits renders this gesture toward redemption provisional rather than secure. But the connection between Rosetta and Riquet, such a tentative reciprocity, is all the more powerful because it remains uncertain. It recruits viewers’ investment in a moment of hope.
“She was blinded by the struggle she’s in [but] she learns to see.” suggests Luc Dardenne. Rosetta has first been “seen” – that is, noticed, acknowledged, and valued, by Riquet. Now she is finally able to “see” him back, to acknowledge the impact of her actions on another who cares for her, to accept their mutual obligations, and to entertain the possibility that he may now forgive her. If this embodied hope of ethical connection concludes Rosetta’s drama, the wider plea of the film is that its audiences acknowledge others who, like Rosetta, are struggling to access what we take for granted – it asks us to learn to “see” them too.
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Note: Rosetta was released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection in 2012.