If there were any doubt that the Dardennes discovered what would be their lasting aesthetic with La promesse, it was dispelled in the opening moments of Rosetta. The earlier film spent a lot of time following characters around, hovering behind them as they made their way through their world. As Rosetta begins, we’re again in close to a character, but this time we have a velocity: The girl, Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne), is storming from room to room in some kind of industrial facility, and the Dardennes’ camera is following her at speed. This isn’t a virtuoso tracking shot out of Scorsese or P.T. Anderson, though; Rosetta isn’t accommodating the camera. When she exits a room, she slams the door behind her and the camera is caught up short, forcing an edit. When she erupts onto a factory floor, she ducks underneath the machinery, making her own passageways where the camera cannot go, and again forcing a cut. We are not welcome to follow.
The sequence’s halting, stutter-step rhythm is imposed by Rosetta herself, and in these first moments it has already filled the film with tension. When a manager, conspicuous in his long sleeves, pinched face, and a tie that swings to and fro as he tries to impede her progress, physically blocks her passage, she ducks under another part of the assembly line to escape, leaving both the boss man and the cameraman behind. In that moment, there’s the suggestion of equivalence. The attention of audience members in their arthouse seats or in front of their LCD screens matters no more to Rosetta than the imprecations of middle management. We are the boss. Rosetta is on her own.
When Rosetta is finally cornered, a struggle ensues and the screen blurs, Alain Marcoen’s 16mm camera capturing exquisite fragments of images in a kind of naturalistic analog to Christopher Doyle’s smeary, swooshy action shots for Wong Kar-wai. We clearly see Rosetta spit in her boss’s face and the camera fleetingly registers his reaction (which seems not entirely unkind, given the circumstances), then stops to dwell on Rosetta’s shortness of breath. The film is dotted with these bursts of conflict, as Rosetta struggles, physically, with her own body as well as against the bodies of others. These are perfectly judged moments that inform her character’s psychology. Unlike La promesse, which employed fairly conventional, if affecting, narrative strategies, Rosetta has the unforced power of documentary.
And what sent Rosetta into that rage? Only the loss of some type of factory job. As usual, the Dardennes’ story involves the consuming necessity of human labour, and, also as usual, it is elegantly simple, involving only a few important characters–Rosetta herself, the alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux) with whom she lives in a shabby trailer park (called, in the movie’s greatest ironic gesture, “Grand Canyon”), waffle-stand counter clerk Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), and the boss there (Olivier Gourmet). But we spend a large portion of the film’s running time just watching Rosetta. We learn that she’s a creature of both routine and determination, whether she’s using a jerry-rigged bait-and-bottle trap to catch fish in a nearby lake, pouring ingredients into an industrial mixing bowl, or attempting to drag her mother to substance-abuse treatment. And we learn that her independent streak, while on some level admirable, has been mutated by the harshness of her world into a sort of malady. Is that sharp pain near her stomach merely a menstrual cramp, or a gut reaction to toxic self-reliance?
Rosetta’s determination stems from her unshakable confidence in the baseness of human existence. Her employers will abandon her. Her mother needs adult supervision, lest she be found drinking up her meagre savings or blowing the landlord in the little shack where he collects the rent and controls the running water. Her peers are of no use to her because, to a one, they lack economic power. That point is made in a scene that most directly illustrates Rosetta’s mindset, in which she refuses to speak to the friendly waffle clerk but makes a bee-line for the older fellow she sees filling his till. Her guiding principle? Follow the money.
Critics have described Rosetta as a warrior, and Rosetta is a bit like a wilderness survival picture set, ironically, in the margins of capitalist civilization. That’s a respectful way to look at her. Other writers have called her “unlikeable,” especially drive-by message-board types who see the presence of uncharming characters as a convenient critical cudgel for beating up a movie they didn’t happen to enjoy. I understand the rap–here’s a hungry girl who throws out fresh fish, a poor girl who declines financial assistance, a lonely girl who refuses gestures of kindness. When a well-meaning Riquet appears at the Grand Canyon, she greets him with fists and a scuffle in the dirt before he can tell her that a waffle-making position has opened up. (The tussle hikes up her skirt in a way that might be comic or erotic if Rosetta’s lack of self-consciousness weren’t so indicative of her grim, almost frightening single-mindedness.) Later, she accepts his offer of hospitality–some beer, a pair of old boots, a warm place to stay–only when she can no longer bear to go home.
But Rosetta’s outward unpleasantness cuts to the quick of the picture’s examination of character and class. If this girl had been born into the middle class or higher, the same qualities that make Rosetta “unlikeable” would be considered hallmarks of a forceful personality. The pride, the fierce independence, even the willingness to stab another in the back in order to gain a personal advantage (the assessment might be “she does what she has to do”), would all be contributory character traits in the narrative of her success. She would be a go-getter, a bootstrap-puller, a Republican voter. And if she had the good fortune to be born as a male, she might go farther still.
Rosetta herself embodies that critique of both classism and sexism, and it’s easy to see it even without digging into the specifics of Belgian culture and economics that inform her story. (So pointed was the film’s depiction of poverty and stubborn desperation that it has its own namesake employment legislation, the Rosetta Plan, aimed at improving job opportunities for young Belgians.) Dequenne’s fierce and unsentimental performance is also a rebuke to the superficial tendencies of mainstream cinema. Imagine the indignities her character would suffer if transplanted to a Hollywood romcom and it’ll become that much more apparent why the Dardennes take such care never to idealize or romanticize her portrait.
Too, there is a keen moral dimension to the story that emerges as Rosetta’s transgressions become too much for the hungriest soul to bear. Terrified by the prospects of continuing poverty and impending adulthood–in the lines of her mother’s face, surely, Rosetta reads her own grim fortune–she actually contemplates manslaughter, but finds it too bold a line to cross. She then betrays Riquet, her only friend, by ratting out his under-the-counter homemade waffle racket, taking his job as her reward. At that moment where Rosetta sides with management against her fellow proletarian, she loses the high ground she had maintained for so long. Riquet, gobsmacked, fills his now-empty days by following Rosetta around town, glaring at her from his motorbike. As Rosetta starts to struggle with feelings of guilt, the sputtering whine of Riquet’s motorbike becomes an aural manifestation of her conscience, finally freeing itself from the muck. In certain frames from the movie’s final moments, Riquet can literally be seen hovering over Rosetta’s shoulder, an angel or devil riding in slow, baleful circles around her.
What becomes of Rosetta? The film ends too abruptly to say for sure, but there is hope in that last scene. Rosetta is often understood as a counterpart to the religious parable offered by Robert Bresson’s similarly themed Mouchette, and if you’re looking for a spiritual dimension in the Dardennes work, it’s easy to read Christian overtones in this story.* Something remarkable certainly does happen in the film’s very last shot. Rosetta, hauling a propane tank back to her trailer in order to gas herself to death, stumbles and falls. She is weeping openly. Riquet, her apparent nemesis, likely saves her life when he steps off of his bike and reaches down to help her up. This last time we see Rosetta, teary-eyed, her gaze locked with Riquet’s off screen, there is something in her eyes we’ve never seen before. There is shame there, and humility. There is also, most of all, a measure of disbelief. It reminded me immediately–and, I suppose, unavoidably–of the final moments from Chaplin’s City Lights, a film the Dardennes have identified as one of their favorites. Rosetta seems to understand that she’s been granted a second chance by a person who still somehow has compassion for her–opening the slammed doors, following under the machinery, returning again and again to the Grand Canyon. In those final moments, it’s possible that Rosetta knows how a resurrection feels.
There isn’t a ton of detail in the Super-16 camera negative, but Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer of Rosetta, sourced from a 35mm blow-up IP scanned at 2K and graded under the supervision of DP Alain Marcoen, seems to preserve every softly undulating granule. (The video track runs at about 34 Mbps.) The high resolution and lack of apparent compression artifacts are key, especially when Marcoen’s camera starts swinging back and forth, creating chaos in the frame. Rosetta’s surroundings are generally drab, tending towards grey concrete and grey-brown earth, and the occasional splashes of colour–the title character’s blue and red jackets, for instance, or the green vegetation surrounding the lake where she hunts trout–are notably subdued. The transfer favours depth over contrast, with details clearly visible even as the shadows dip gently into the grainy dark blues at the low end of the image. Black levels are fine when they need to be, but patches of rich blackness aren’t really in the offing. Lastly, even in the darkest parts of the picture, a shimmering veil of 16mm film grain is a near-constant presence.
Audio is an unfussy 2.0 DTS-HD MA surround track, but it gets the point across, offering ample dynamic range to capture all the little sounds that populate Rosetta’s environment, including that damnable sputtering motorbike that so torments her in the late-going. Too, the English subtitles represent a fresh translation. It’s the usual outstanding presentation from Criterion.
Rosetta is very much of a piece with Criterion’s simultaneously-released DVD and Blu of La promesse, the supplements again anchored by a 62-minute, Rosetta-specific excerpt from what seems to have been a very long interview between critic Scott Foundas and the Dardennes themselves. Here they discuss Rosetta’s theme of labour and its place in society, noting that they took a lot of shit from the left for writing a character who flew in the face of Marxist alienation theory. (Rosetta seems only to be at peace when she is a working, productive member of society.) They answer the obvious questions, such as the one that gives them an excuse to tell amusing anecdotes about Dequenne’s casting, but they also take time to explain some of the nitty-gritty work of filmmaking.
At one point, they describe the unusual lighting scheme that allowed them to shoot inside the confined interior of Rosetta’s trailer, which involved gaffers on the roof, shining illumination through windows using light fixtures attached to booms, moving from one corner of the trailer to another as DP Marcoen gave orders timed to the action in front of the camera. They mention that footage of this choreographed behind-the-scenes effort exists; unfortunately, none of it has been excavated for presentation here. If Criterion intends to buff up every single one of its Dardenne titles with excerpts from this lengthy Foundas-Dardennes face-off it’s going to start to seem a little samey-samey (the filmmakers’ latest, The Kid with a Bike, is already slated for a spine number in early 2013), though it’s hard to complain too much when the Dardennes respond openly and generously to the critic’s relatively minimal lines of questioning. It’s good work on everyone’s part.
It can’t compare, however, to the shock of seeing Émilie Dequenne’s face appear, complete with mascara, blush, and lipstick, in close-up at the beginning of the 18-minute HiDef featurette “An Actors’ Perspective: The Making of the Dardennes’ Rosetta”. (That strange s-apostrophe on Actors is Criterion’s, not mine.) Here, then, is the actorly façade the Dardennes broke through to find the scrappy, unadorned essence that was their Rosetta. Gourmet is back, too, wearing the colourful patterned shirt he sported in the extras on La promesse and returning to some of the same observations about the concept of an imaginary life and life history that an actor can use to spark physical expressions of character. For her part, Dequenne explains that the crew was banned from rehearsals as the Dardennes and the actors worked out their scenes. Only then were they invited into the scenes to figure out, on the fly, how they were being staged. For these guys, classic film-school technique is a relic of your daddy’s movie-making process. “You don’t have marks to hit. They don’t do coverage shots,” Dequenne explains before adding, with a little laugh, “I only found about shot/reverse shots later. I had no idea what they were.”
Topping off the disc is a French-language trailer (in HD, and with English subtitles), one of those terse numbers that runs about a minute in length and doesn’t pretend to tell the film’s story. The booklet is filled out by a Kent Jones essay that says a lot about style and substance in just a few pages.
*The critic Bert Cardullo enumerated many parallels between Rosetta and Christ in an essay for the Journal of Religion and Film.