This film was the surprise winner of the Palm d'Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and was selected as a feature at the New York Film Festival. Written and directed by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the movie examines the life of an impoverished young woman, played by Cannes Best Actress co-winner Emilie Dequenne, who is seeking to better herself. The filmmakers clearly intended to make a political statement regarding the plight of those living on the edge and to highlight the need for reform in the Belgian social services system. Yet the movie functions more as a personal drama than as social commentary. By focusing solely on their heroine and her almost feral approach to life, les freres Dardenne dilute their message.
Using handheld cameras that literally thrust the audience into the fray, the film opens as Rosetta is fired by her employer. For the young girl, her work is her only reason for living. Other than her job, Rosetta's days consist of looking after her sluttish, alcoholic mother, illegally fishing in the lake at the campgrounds in which they live and struggling to pay the rent. Like the hero of Frank Whaley's "Joe the King", Rosetta is a child forced to grow up too early. Given the stress and uncertainty of her life, it's not surprising that she is plagued by unexplained stomach pains (perhaps an incipient ulcer, maybe something more serious).
The filmmakers detail all the minutiae of Rosetta's life from the instant she loses her job, and therein lies one of the films flaws. There are seemingly endless shots of Rosetta crossing a highway, trading her shoes for boots which she stores in an abandoned drain pipe, then tromping through the woods to her home. The sequences become repetitious quickly and add little to the viewer's understanding of the character's psyche.
The film makes one thing abundantly clear-the deck is stacked against Rosetta in her quest to better herself. Every effort she makes to secure employment ends badly. A baker hires her only to let her go when his son needs work. She is befriended by a male coworker who operates a waffle stand and her reaction to his kindness is both curious and devastating. As the film proceeds, Rosetta's single-minded pursuit of employment colors everything in her life, to the point where she is willing to do almost anything to find a job.
Building a film around an unpleasant character can offer viewers rewarding insights, but only if the actor who plays the character possesses the necessary charisma to charm the viewer into caring in spite of it all. In her first major role, Dequenne projects an appropriate scrappiness and sense of frustration, but she is not yet accomplished enough to make Rosetta consistently compelling. She has an ordinariness that works here but doesn't, in the opinion of this reviewer, transcend the role sufficiently to raise it the rank of award-worthy work. The supporting players are all filtered through Rosetta and her psyche, so as a result most of the other actors barely register, except for Fabrizio Rongione as the waffle maker. He injects a welcome boost of energy into the film.
As character study, "Rosetta" succeeds, but as great filmmaking, it misses the mark.
* MPAA rating: R, for language.
Emilie Dequenne: Rosetta
Fabrizio Rongione: Riquet
Anne Yernaux: Rosetta's Mother
Olivier Gourmet: Boss
A USA Films presentation. Directors Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Producers Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Laurent Petin and Michele Petin. Screenplay Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Cinematographer Alain Marcoen. Editor Marie-Helene Dozo. Production Design Igor Gabriel. Costume Design Monic Parelle. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.