By Indiewire | Indiewire October 4, 1999 at 2:0AM
NYFF REVIEW: Rough, Tough, and Indelible "Rosetta"
by Stephen Garrett
Rough, tough, and bitterly beautiful, the Cannes Palme d'Or-winning "Rosetta" carries with it the burning social indignation that is so much a trademark of its writer/directors, the brothers Luc and Jean-Paul Dardenne. Like their last feature "La Promesse," "Rosetta" also explores the Belgian lower classes and their daily struggles to make ends meet in a hand-to-mouth world; and as in their previous films, the Dardennes, documentarians since 1975, use a non-professional cast to achieve electric drama. What follows is a sort of Belgian kitchen-sink realism, as title character Rosetta (18-year-old Emilie Dequenne, in a Cannes-winning performance) muscles through her life with a bulldog determination to land any job and hold on so that she can have a normal life, just like everyone else.
Rosetta is first introduced as she gets pink-slipped, and her physical, tenacious rage immediately sets the tone for the rest of the film. Living in a trailer park, she returns home daily to a drunk mother (Anne Yernaux) so desperate for handouts and affection that she's willing to whore herself out just to pay the water bill. Rosetta is constantly reduced to lecturing her own mother and trying to keep her from begging, while every day she goes out in search of another, hopefully permanent, job. She finally lands work mixing batter for a waffle-maker when a testy employee is fired, and suddenly it seems like her life is starting to make a turn for the better. Young waffle-vendor Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione) even finds himself attracted to Rosetta and, in a series of prickly, richly tender scenes, he even starts to court her despite her resistance.
But when the former employee returns, asking for her job back, Rosetta loses that brief taste of a regular life, and finds herself forced to betray Riquet's trust in order to hang onto her chance at a steady paycheck. By the end she has lost everything and is the object of torture and ridicule as an enraged, revenge-driven Riquet stalks and torments her.
The Dardennes capture Rosetta's world in a litany of tight and medium hand-held shots that concentrate sometimes exclusively on Dequenne's face and body, following and clinging to her just as Rosetta hangs onto whatever gives her the possibility of a better life. The result is a visually effective equivalent of Rosetta's own intense worldview: myopic, focused, intensely determined. Dialogue is often sparse as the Dardennes let their characters' labor play out and speak for itself, whether it be Rosetta's hauling around of flour bags or her trying to evade Riquet through the streets of her town. What translates is the extreme physicality of each and every act, a dimension that less ambitious filmmakers might impatiently cut out but which, for the Dardennes, is the essence of their story.
The film's major accomplishment, though, is Dequenne's performance, defiantly unsentimental and stridently unlovable -- a rough diamond obsessed with escaping her poverty-row upbringing. The Dardennes do not make her an easily sympathetic character, and yet her determination and stubbornness are, by the end, hard not to admire. She is not a generous character; she can't afford to be. There's an everyone-for-themselves mentality at her core that's not so much motivated by selfishness as it is by survival; and in that sense the film is really an indelible portrait of someone who consistently, persistently, finds the strength within herself to keep going, not matter how bleak the circumstance.