Published on December 30th, 2013 | by Noah Dimitrie


The Criterion Cut – Rosetta


We’ve all sat on a bench and watched as strangers pass by, simply trying to live their lives. We’ve all wondered where they came from and where they were going. We daydream of stories to accompany their appearance — stories that interest us in ways our own lives couldn’t. That’s exactly how I imagine Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; they’re people-watchers, daydreaming of the lives of people victimized by their environment, their society, their lifestyle, and most importantly, themselves.

Rosetta, arguably the Belgian brothers’ most acclaimed and prominent work, revels in the desperation of the daydream they’ve created. The Dardenne brothers are known for their stark realism. Their dreams are not whimsical or absurd. They are harsh, matter-of-fact pieces of cinema that peer into the lives of bent and broken individuals.

Rosetta is a teenager, desperate and insecure. Her mother is an alcoholic who can’t seem to recover. When we first meet the title character, she’s just lost her job and is not too happy about it. She throws a tantrum, locks herself in a closet, and has to be dragged out by security. We stay right by her side as she meanders through her neighbourhood, into her trailer park, and through the nearby woods.

She tries desperately to find work. She pawns off her old clothes, trying to scrape together enough money to make ends meet. Her mother doesn’t do much but sit around the trailer, drink, and have sex with an unnamed man who’s clearly taking advantage of her. Rosetta is sick and tired of it all. Adding insult to injury, she begins to suffer from mysterious stomach cramps and is forced to decide whether to pay the rent or the water bill.

If you’re looking for an intricate plot, you won’t find it in Rosetta. The film is simply her life in a nutshell at her most vulnerable point. The camera acts as a voyeur, a very personal one, showing her mostly in close-up as she goes about her life. Not a single tripod was used in the making of this production, making it feel stylistically like a Dogme 95 film. The Dardennes have a unique fetish for giving us just about the most up, close, and personal look at their characters’ lives. Almost every frame of the film features our heroine.

Perhaps heroine isn’t the best term. We sympathize with Rosetta, but only because we feel that we know her so well. She’s not portrayed as necessarily good or evil, just rather indecisive and scared. She does some morally ambiguous things, but only because she feels that she needs to. At the end of the day, she is just trying to get by.  To fit into society and just be normal.

Rosetta is played flawlessly by Èmilie Dequenne, who won Best Actress at The Cannes Film Festival in 1999. Her anxiety and detachment work perfectly with the veritè style that the Dardennes use to tell the story. Never have I seen one actress carry such a heavy film and make it look so natural. Perhaps the Palme D’Or that the directors won should have been awarded to Èmilie as well.

The Criterion Release of the film is quite barren, containing only the film and a few supplements. However, the bonus features, including an hour long interview with the Dardenne brothers and another with the star of the film, are quite interesting. The brothers speak of their influences and inspirations, along with some ramblings about the character of Rosetta. If you have an extra hour, I’d recommend it.

At the end of the day, Rosetta is a lost and confused soul. Her idea of a good life is to simply not have a bad one. Her demeanour says she’s given up, but it’s all an act. Internally, she remains hopelessly optimistic. She lies in her bed, conversing with herself, assuring that everything will be okay — everything will be normal. Will it really? Nobody knows. That’s where the daydream ends.

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About the Author

currently pitches his tent in his hometown of Saskatoon. His ambition in life is to not go completely broke from seeing movies and patronizing used book stores. He is a writer of fiction, art criticism, and the occasional hot take on Reddit. His mom still does his taxes.

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