Rosetta is not a film for normal, happy, middle-class people. If you have a family or a job, if you’re the kind of person who makes friends easily, if you’re a graduate of an Ivy League university, don’t bother watching it. It’s not going to make any sense. Rosetta is a film for outcasts and misfits, for people who don’t understand how the world works, for people who have never learned the rules.
Some film critics have compared Rosetta, the seventeen-year-old heroine of the Dardenne brothers 1999 Palme d’Or winner, to Bresson’s Mouchette. I think they are mistaken. Rosetta is not suicidal. She is the opposite of a victim. There is a grim, relentless determination behind her pretty face. In the end, she will be defeated. Perhaps, like Mouchette, she will drown herself in the muddy little pond behind the run-down trailer park in the Belgium city of Seraing, where she lives with her alcoholic mother, but she will not go down without a fight. If Rosetta has cinematic relatives, she is closer to Jeremy Iron’s sleazy but willful Polish immigrant in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting, or to Delphine Seyrig perversely homicidal prostitute single mother in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Rosetta is a natural born pugilist. She will bang on society’s door and beat her hands bloody until she can bang no more, then expire out of sheer exhaustion, for society will never let her inside.
The film opens with Rosetta, played by played by Cannes Film Festival Best Actress winner Émilie Dequenne, running through a food processing factory, chasing after her boss and pleading with him to tell her why she’s been fired. Hasn’t she done a good job? Hasn’t she been a good worker? Why her? After he refuses to give her an answer, she lashes out, punching him in the face and kicking him until she’s restrained by another worker and dragged off the site by the police. We quickly learn the source of her violent despair when she goes home, hiding her shoes in a drainpipe so her alcoholic mother doesn’t sell them to buy whiskey. Rosetta has no father. The sperm donor could have been one of dozens of men her mother sleeps with for negligible amounts of cash and small favors. Her job, low paying and low status though it was, was her only sense of normality, a life-raft that kept her from drowning in the Belgian underclass. Her mother, who doesn’t even rise to the status of prostitute – she’s that mentally troubled woman men just take advantage of – is more like a daughter than a parent, the forty-year-old child of a seventeen-year-old adult.
Eventually Rosetta hits upon the idea that she could work in a waffle stand. It’s Belgium, after all, where they really do eat waffles. Waffles in Seraing are like cheese steaks in Philadelphia, the city delicacy. In the United States, it’s pretty easy to imagine the angelic looking Émilie Dequenne getting a customer service job without much trouble. Do you really think people want to buy food from a bald, middle-aged troll like me? Western Europe, on the other hand, and the more I learn about the European Union the more I realize it often combines the very worst of socialism with the very worst of capitalism, has a million and one hoops to jump through before you can even work behind a counter. There are waiting lists for sub-minimum wage internships. Eventually it’s Rosetta’s pretty face that does get her a chance at finding work. Riquet, an eighteen-year-old cashier, sees her once, and is instantly smitten. As soon as the boss fires another woman for being late, he asks the boss where she lives – she had filled out a job application – and follows her home on his motorcycle.
Riquet, played by Fabrizio Rongione, may have motives that go behind simple generosity – what normal eighteen-year-old doesn’t? – but he doesn’t deserve what he gets. He’s a genuinely nice guy. Or maybe he does deserve it. He should have seen what was coming after he gets off his motorcycle at the trailer park and she attacks him for reasons I doubt even she understands. She probably resents him for having a job. But he doesn’t run away. Rather, after he overpowers her, and pins her to the ground, he lets her know that “there’s a chance you could have a job. The boss just fired someone.” Rosetta is overjoyed. At last she’s found an opportunity for a normal life. She is in fact so happy that she even warms up to Riquet’s romantic overtures, going back to his apartment, listening to the demo tapes of his horrible rock band, dancing, chugging a bottle of beer, and even smiling, for the one and only time in the whole film. As we all know from our experience with capitalism, however, you should never be too happy about getting a shitty job. You’ll lose it the next day. That’s just what happens. Rosetta, who thought she finally had a chance at a normal life, doesn’t. The boss, who needs to make a place for his lazy son, who has just been expelled from school, fires her. Like Sisyphus, she had rolled the gigantic boulder up to the top of the hill only to see it roll right back down again.
It goes without saying that Rosetta doesn’t take getting fired well, but it goes beyond that. Whether she’s a villain or a a hero I’ll let you decide. I won’t spoil what she does to poor smitten Roquet. From my perspective she’s a good example of a line written by the current Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan. “To live outside the law you have to be honest.” Roquet is honest. Rosetta is not. But it’s probably more accurate to say that Rosetta is “beyond good and evil,” not because she’s risen above society like a Nietzchean Übermensch, but because she’s so low on the totem poll she’s not even an individual. Without or even with a job, she’s adrift on the sea of the vast underclass without a life jacket, a member of the “unnecessariat” who’s nothing more than a reflection of her place, or to be more accurate, her lack of place, in the economy. Rosetta is not a human being. She’s a case study in societal dysfunction.
Aesthetically Rosetta owes a debt to Chantal Akerman. Like Akerman, the Dardenne brothers use repetition to express the soul crushing boredom of a life in the lower working class. Half the time you won’t know what’s going on. Rosetta is hiding her shoes. Rosetta is throwing her traps back into the muddy pond to catch yet another tiny, sick looking fish too small to eat. Rosetta has stomach cramps. Rosetta is dragging her mother around the trailer park. Rosetta is running along a street somewhere in Seraing. Rosetta is applying a hair dryer to her stomach in the hopes that the heat will relieve her horrible stomach pains. Rosetta is hiding her shoes again. Why is Rosetta hiding her shoes? Who knows? But she’s hiding them again. Let’s just say if you’re used to big budget special effects, a lush musical score, or a plot that goes anywhere but deeper and deeper into the tedium of life in the underclass – Rosetta doesn’t have a TV and she certainly has no Internet or cell phone — you’ll hate Rosetta. You’ll probably turn it off in the first twenty minutes.
Or maybe you won’t. The Dardenne brothers have what Chantal Akerman never had, a charismatic actress who can do almost nothing for every frame in a ninety minute film, and still hold your attention. Rosetta is pure cinema. Émilie Dequenne would have been a great silent film actress. You can study her face for hours and not get bored. Rosetta’s visage, you imagine, is like a Rosetta Stone. If only you can figure out what’s going on inside her mind, you think, you can figure out your own place in society. You can figure out the rules, how the world works, the reason why you, like Rosetta, have been cast out, why you have no chance at a normal life. But of course you can’t and you won’t. There is nothing inside. There’s no place for Rosetta. There’s no place for you.