The films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne all depict characters arriving at forked paths, having to choose between apprenticeship and rebellion, the promise of stability and growth within a predetermined system and a certain feral, almost instinctual resistance to the social and economic contradictions of rural living. No matter the narrative or milieu, both experiences reveal contrasting forms of survival with wildly different consequences and outcomes. This tense thematic dichotomy bleeds through the Dardenne brothers’ stifling handheld camera aesthetic, one where off-screen sound and jarring physical movement strictly defines the borders of the modern world. Ultimately, their films delicately balance chaos and order, unspoken tenuousness and silent expression.
In 1999’s Rosetta, the Dardennes’ second narrative feature to gain international acclaim, the titular character played by Émilie Dequenne desires a “job and a normal life,” an escape hatch from her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux) and perpetual economic uncertainty. Rosetta ultimately spends the entire film fluctuating between a sort of diligent pragmatism and wild-eyed fury in trying to make that dream come true. The character’s unflinching persistence and resolve can be seen in the manic opening sequence, where Rosetta, having just been fired, angrily confronts a fellow co-worker despite being chased by her boss and security. As the young woman daringly maneuvers through crowded hallways and around industrial machines, her focus on the task at hand never wavers. Like so many pivotal scenes in Rosetta, this moment is about daily routine suddenly disrupted by an outburst of desperation, a momentary inconvenience for the surrounding bystanders, but a sudden and serious shift in circumstance for core participants.
Like the central character in 2011’s The Kid with a Bike, Rosetta is a young person almost always on the move, trekking through the city looking for work, retrieving her boots from a hiding place in the forest, and fishing for trout in a muddy lake using a broken milk bottle. A forager at heart, Rosetta makes the best of her surroundings. The Dardennes follow Rosetta’s movement closely, lingering over her shoulder with an observational relentlessness that forces the viewer to see the world on her terms. Whether Rosetta is witnessing her mother in a compromising position with their trailer-park landlord or mixing ingredients to make waffles during her first shift at a food cart, each moment exudes the same closeness and barren intimacy.
Rosetta eventually strikes up a semi-friendship with Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), the food truck’s cashier who’s illegally selling his own waffles on the side. While their conversations never move past awkward pauses and surface banter, there’s a sense that Rosetta welcomes Riquet’s presence. But this burgeoning relationship is turned upside down when their boss (Olivier Gourmet) fires Rosetta to hire his own unemployed son, a bit of nepotism, or faux-apprenticeship, that derails the character’s life path once again. Rosetta chooses to turn on Riquet, the only person who’s had any sort of positive effect on her life, in order to sustain her own employment. This betrayal is indicative of the fragile balance between emotional well-being and physical survival found in any of the Dardennes’ films.
What makes Rosetta unique, though, is its lead character’s determination to reveal and destroy any hint of surrounding weakness threatening to subvert her singular direction in life. Rosetta would rather risk Riquet physically retaliating against her than be linked to his illegal operation—or die trying to save her mother from the bottle instead of sticking her head in the sand. Both scenarios prove the character’s fundamental need to exist within a state of hardened reality, not soft fantasy. “We’re not beggars,” Rosetta screams at her mother early in the film, and it’s a declaration of extreme pride that comes to define the character’s view of the world.
In the end, the level of comfort Rosetta seeks feels completely hypothetical, hinging on a definition of success cemented by the very capitalist institutions she rages against. By completely submerging herself in the pursuit of financial stability, Rosetta never directly confronts the fact that finding a job and getting her mother into rehab might not make her life better in the end. Ultimately, this is what makes Rosetta such a staggering vision of relentless, often-misguided youth. It’s only during a final standoff with Riquet, where Rosetta suddenly becomes flummoxed by his surprising act of forgiveness, that she begins to see human nature in a more flexible light, as something more than disappointment incarnate.
Criterion welcomes the Dardenne brothers to the land of high-definition with a textured and crisp 1080p transfer of Rosetta. The solid transfer calls attention to the specific details of each image, namely the pours on Rosetta’s face, her drab red jacket, tacky patterned wallpaper inside her caravan, and, most significantly, the constant presence of mud. Off-screen sound is essential to the cinematic style of the filmmakers, and the 2.0 DTS HD-MA soundtrack impressively shows why. The constant sputtering of a motorbike playing over rushed footsteps is layered perfectly, enabling the viewer to clearly distinguish between the multiple overlapping sounds.
The supplemental package for Criterion’s Rosetta release is prime example of quality over quantity. At 61 minutes, Scott Foundas’s in-depth interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is an extensive and essential look at the making of the film. In a fascinating segment on the subject of womanhood in the film, the filmmakers discuss the connection between Rosetta’s exterior conflicts and the debilitating stomach cramps she suffers from throughout the film, and their subsequent discussions on Rosetta’s experiences provide an inroad to the film’s treatment of gender and social politics. Later, Luc specifically touches on the singular obsession of this very determined character: "For Rosetta, not to work is to die." In two superb actor interviews, star Émilie Dequenne discusses her first audition, where her directors made her "take off her shoes" and do simple improvisations until she started to sweat profusely. Olivier Gorumet also remembers similarly rigorous rehearsals on location, most specifically his learning to master the art of mixing waffle batter. Both interviews are indelible portraits of the filmmakers’ directing process. Finally, there’s a theatrical trailer and a staggeringly potent essay on Rosetta’s themes and social implications by one of America’s essential film critics, Kent Jones.
The Dardennes’ Palme d’Or winner, a singular story of survival and relentless persistence, burns with the kind of immediacy that will make it forever relevant.