Rosetta, the new film by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is not an easy movie to like. It has no conventional entertainment value; it assaults the eye with its constant use of jittery handheld camera; it’s relentlessly claustrophobic, both visually and emotionally, and it has no proper beginning or end. When it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last summer, the same journalists who waxed warmly over the award for Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother could only sneer at the jury’s perversity in picking this pretentiously avant-garde downer of a film.
To me this seemed like a pretty strong recommendation, since the gist of the complaints was that something unexpected had happened: A sour taste had been laid on the jaded palates of film festival habitués. It only remained to see if the discomfort the movie so obviously engendered was the result of it being strikingly original or merely tedious.
Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) is an 18-year-old girl who lives with her mother, an alcoholic prostitute, in what looks like the remains of a trailer park just outside some unnamed Belgian town. The film opens with her being fired from her job, though what happens is not immediately apparent, since the Dardennes keep their camera so closely on top of Rosetta’s actions that what’s going on around her can seem vague. These pervasive tight shots, combined with Rosetta’s furious energy as she goes from city to home and back again, locked in a deadening hustle to find work, give the film a patina of bristling anger. Rosetta’s life has been reduced to rituals of survival and a necessary selfishness, like some beast in a nature film, and the camera seems eager to literally rub our noses in her miserable squalor.
But though Rosetta is as opaque as a leopard — her main expression is watchfulness — she’s still a human being, more sinned against than sinning, and she does manage to make a "normal" connection to someone, if only just long enough to complicate her life further.
The Dardennes’ last film, the much-acclaimed La Promesse (1996), was a clear-eyed look at the exploitation of immigrants, but now seems like an orgy of sentiment when compared to Rosetta. The obvious precedent here is Robert Bresson’s classic Mouchette (1966), in which the 14-year-old heroine’s spirit slowly starves from the lack of any positive human contact. But Bresson’s style was contemplative and one could detach oneself from Mouchette’s situation just enough to be saddened rather than horrified.
Rosetta is more in-your-face and cruel to its audience. It’s searing if you’re open to it, but it will still hold you at bay, like an effective polemic written in curses.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.