Rosetta begins as if it were shot from the barrel of a gun, with the camera fixed on a girl in a white hairnet and a white lab coat as she walks at a feverish clip through a series of anonymous institutional corridors, down a flight of stairs and across a modern factory floor, under machinery and in and out of doorways. She is being chased, but even before she opens her mouth to speak, we may sense that she is trying not to get out but to stay in. Why exactly do we sense this? Perhaps it has something to do with what we’re seeing and what we’re not seeing.
Why put the camera here rather than there? Why show this action from this angle and distance, and with this lens, rather than from any other? Jean-Luc Godard once posed this question, which is contingent on the notion that, for every moment in a given scenario, there is one right place for the camera—a fallacy that in the past was couched in the terms of professionalism, and later reconfigured as a moral issue. “He/she always knows exactly where to put the camera” is a compliment one continues to hear, but what it really adds up to is: “He/she always knows exactly what he/she wants to show us.” And, perhaps just as importantly, what he/she doesn’t want to show us.
“In order to film what you want to show of a face or a body, you first have to decide what you want to hide.” Jean-Pierre Dardenne was summarizing the process of realignment and self-definition that he and his brother, Luc, undertook as they prepared to make what they now consider to be their real first film, La promesse (1996). This particular insight has proven crucial to their aesthetic trajectory, not just in terms of where the camera is positioned but also where we are placed within the scenario on a moment-by-moment basis.
Rosetta, their 1999 follow-up, does not begin with its eponymous heroine (Émilie Dequenne, making her film debut) at work on the factory floor, only to be told that her trial period is up and she must leave. When she flees from the head of personnel and two cops, we do not see wide shots of her running, punctuated with close-ups of her face turning to look behind her, alternating with shots of the approaching officers. Or, to describe another possibility one might be more likely to see today, a mosaic of agitated motion composed of faces, legs, and feet, hands opening and closing doors, bodies struggling. Actually, at a certain moment, as Rosetta is dragged from the ladies’ room where she has barricaded herself, our eyes are temporarily unable to track specific actions, and as in The Bourne Ultimatum or Old Boy, we are left to contemplate a barrage of movements. But here there is a crucial difference: everything is covered in one shot.
The entire opening sequence consists of seven shots, and most of the cuts occur after the closing of doors—that is, Rosetta runs, she closes a door behind her, there is a cut, and then we are with her on the other side of the door. Why not have Dequenne leave the doors open, so that the camera could pass through? Because her character would most certainly not leave the doors open, and unbroken camera movement is not the point. Why not cover the sequence using one of the alternative stylistic scenarios described above? Because the sequence is not about suspense (will they catch her or will she get away?) or chaos. Why not start with Rosetta at work? Because this is a film about mania, about a magical idée fixe maintained by a girl who blots out anything and anybody standing in the way of its possible enactment. It is a film not about having a job but about needing to have a job, which has assumed the perfect and ultimate beauty of a holy grail. “Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta,” goes the childish incantation she whispers to herself before she falls asleep. “You found a job. I found a job. You made a friend. I made a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won’t be left behind. I won’t be left behind.”
A normal life—a life in which her mother is not a drunk and does not behave like a petulant child in need of constant supervision and does not pass out and have to be carried to her bed; a life lived not in a trailer park but in an apartment; a life where water and heat and food and money are not an issue. One might say that Rosetta simply wants what is readily available to so many of us, which is true enough. But that is to reduce the film to the level of a tract, an illustrated plea for more efficient housing and employment programs in Belgium. Actually, Rosetta does draw attention to the basic fact that many lives are led under destitute conditions in cities within the Western world, which always seems to come as a shock to middle-class citizens, possessed by their own idées fixes (that’s the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie). But the reality of Rosetta’s existence is felt so fully not because its details are presented to us as raw data applicable to a given percentage of European citizens but because we apprehend them through her soul-consuming quest for normality, born of a life lived too long in conditions of extreme deprivation. We see only through her blinkered vision and at the pace of her ceaseless motion, as she moves, moves, moves like a sailor trying to bail out a boat with holes on every side. Refusing charity, lugging gallons of water and ungainly tanks of gas to and from the trailer she shares with her mother (Anne Yernaux), selling repaired dresses to used-clothing shops for a pittance, begging for work, poaching fish, training a blow-dryer on her stomach to relieve her cramps—there is no letup, no one to trust, no place where she can rest her head. What is the camera hiding? The world beyond the territory immediately around her. We become intimately familiar with her sturdy legs; her compact, bullish frame; her stunning, fresh face, in a state of perpetual animal alert; her sense of inner and outer propriety (she is always carefully dressed and groomed). The rest of the world exists only to the extent that she must engage with it as she survives from hour to hour, and almost everyone else in the film, from her mother to her new boss at the waffle stand (Olivier Gourmet), is glimpsed in passing. Even during the rare moments when we are placed outside of her point of view—for example, the brief instant in the opening sequence when Alain Marcoen’s camera stays outside the ladies’ room and with the personnel head and the cops—we are still with her. We remain within Rosetta’s obsession because there is nowhere else to go.
The Dardenne brothers have referred to Rosetta as a war film, which is just—their heroine comports herself like a soldier doing battle, fighting for every inch of territory. But it may be more accurately described as a terror film: Rosetta is menaced by a dread as deep and endless and constant as anything conjured by Poe, Hawthorne, or Lovecraft. It is a stunted mental construct formed in response to a heartless reality, made even more menacing by internalization through repetition and deprivation. The spiritual acuity of the film has a political resonance that is all the more potent for its complete lack of didacticism. With its radical economy of focus and action and its minimum of narrative incident (it is even more finely honed than La promesse), Rosetta might stand as a rebuke to anyone still proffering the idiotic “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” argument about poverty. It’s hard to fight your way through a wall of hardship with a shrunken imagination of what’s on the other side.
The action of mentally shutting out the world is constantly enacted in Rosetta’s charging body and in her fiercely held eyes—the first cut away from the altercation in the factory, to Rosetta standing on the street eating a waffle sometime later, is alarming because all the ferocity of the previous sequence has been transferred to her face. John Cassavetes once called his friend Al Ruban his favorite cinematographer because he made you want to reach out and touch the faces of the actors. He would have swooned over Marcoen’s work with the Dardennes. Dequenne’s pulpy lips, rosy cheeks, and thick, arcing eyebrows are always vividly present, but so are the topographical landmarks of her world. Once you’ve seen the film, you don’t forget Rosetta’s walks back and forth between the trailer and the proprietor’s decrepit shed, her miserable chases after her mother under perpetually overcast skies, the reeling in and resetting of the fishing traps concocted from coat hangers and broken bottles, the ritualized changing of shoes for rubber boots. Nor do you forget the sounds, which, as in every Dardennes film, act as both dramatic elements and musical refrains: the clunk and clatter of the tanks, the whir of the blow-dryer, the wind whooshing through the cracks in the window, the thrashing and splashing of bodies in water and deep muck, the soft hiss of escaping gas, and, most unforgettable of all, the buzzing scooter that circles Rosetta like a pesky insect. It belongs to the one person whom she, by force of circumstance, allows to exist: a boy named Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), whom she has done her best to destroy. However, once the door has been opened to other people, there is no closing it.
After La promesse, everyone expected great things from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, but no one was quite prepared for Rosetta. The 1999 Cannes jury, led by David Cronenberg and including André Téchiné (a decade later, Dequenne would star in Téchiné’s The Girl on the Train), awarded it the Palme d’Or, in a rare example of the best film in competition actually being acknowledged as such. When I saw it in New York for the first time a few months later, it left an enormous roomful of filmgoers stunned and speechless. I was no exception. Rosetta is indeed a great film, but it has a fearsome unity, an unshakable commitment to rendering the contours of a destitute life and the ever present possibility of spiritual transformation, that are altogether uncommon, even within the Dardennes’ formidable body of work.
Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings; the editor of a new collection of essays on Olivier Assayas; the director of the 2007 documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows; and the codirector, with Martin Scorsese, of 2010’s A Letter to Elia. He was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.