Rosetta (1999)

Rosetta (1999)

A harrowing slice of social realism from the Dardenne brothers told with relentless urgency

The Very Best



Belgium, France
Anne Yernaux, Bernard Marbaix, Émilie Dequenne
95 min


Notable for many things, not least the scene in which period cramps actually turn out to be a *good* thing.

What it's about

A precariously employed 17-year-old living in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother struggles to get by, day by day.

The take

Rosetta begins fiercely, with a shaky handheld camera chasing the eponymous teenager (Émilie Dequenne) as she storms across a factory floor and bursts into a room to confront the person she believes has just lost her her job. The film seldom relents from this tone of desperate fury, as we watch Rosetta — whose mother is a barely functioning alcoholic — fight to find the job that she needs to keep the two alive.

As tough as their situation is, though, Rosetta’s fierce sense of dignity refuses to allow her to accept any charity. A stranger to kindness and vulnerability, her abject desperation leads her to mistake these qualities for opportunities to exploit, leading her to make a gutting decision. But for all her apparent unlikeability, the movie (an early film from empathy endurance testers the Dardenne brothers) slots in slivers of startling vulnerability amongst the grimness so that we never lose sight of Rosetta’s ultimate blamelessness. Its profound emotional effect is corroborated by two things: that it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and that it helped usher in a law protecting the rights of teenage employees in its setting of Belgium.

What stands out

Émilie Dequenne’s gripping performance. There’s no music to heighten any of the emotion in the film, and nor does its up-close-and-personal verité cinematography leave her much room to hide. You never get the sense that Dequenne is intimidated by these demanding conditions, though; in fact, you don’t get the sense that she’s intimidated by anything at all, so fierce a presence is she. What makes her performance even more remarkable is the few exceptions to this rule: the gutting moments that expose Rosetta’s fragility and remind us that all this weight is being thrust onto the shoulders of a child. A well-deserved winner of the Best Actress award at Cannes.


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