I doubt many critics would offer “Rosetta” (1999) as a prime example of Hollywood-style filmmaking, but in some ways the title heroine is the perfect embodiment of textbook screenwriting advice.
Film students know the score: a protagonist must have a goal, the goal must be clearly and repeatedly stated, and every action the character undertakes must relate to the pursuit of the goal. If any action is unrelated to the goal it is, by definition, extraneous and should be cut from the script. There can be bigger goals (Indy wants to find the Ark of the Covenant) and smaller goals (Indy wants to avoid being pulped by a giant boulder), but don’t switch goals too often, and always clue in the audience. Keep it simple (and) stupid has long been the mark of a true professional and the source of many billion dollars of revenue, and if it tends to create mechanistic heroes with Flatland dimensions, nobody’s complaining. Except critics, of course. (Just for the record, I love “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”)
Rosetta wants a job. Rosetta is a poor Belgian teenager who lives in a trailer with a burned-out mother who trades hummers for vodka, and she sees a real and honest job as the only way to find meaning and dignity in her life. When we first meet Rosetta, she is racing down featureless factory corridors because she does not want the pursuing authority figures to escort her off the premises of her temporary and now former job. “I did my job well. Everyone says so!”, she screams, and she’s right, but it doesn’t matter. Her trial period is up.
She next sets her targets on a local waffle stand. She begs the owner repeatedly for a job, and when that doesn’t work out, she is not above taking advantage of the young waffle vendor who has become her only friend. She wants his job. Yet despite being so narrowly defined, Rosetta is one of the most vivid and vibrant characters modern cinema has produced, and viewers are unlikely to forget 93 harrowing minutes spent in her presence.
Credit for this minor miracle belongs both to first-time actress Emilie Dequenne and to the writer-director tandem of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. With “La promesse” (1996), the Dardennes delivered a jolt to the international film community with their unique and instantly identifiable production method, a system they intensified with this follow-up feature. The roving hand-held camera of “La promesse” is now brought even closer and the viewer is situated as a virtual stalker constantly perched over the shoulder of the frenetic Rosetta, a perpetual motion machine constantly racing away from a lens that will always catch up to her.
With a few clean, simple shots, the Dardennes delineate the rigid, restrictive world in which Rosetta operates: a busy highway she must constantly dash across, a muddy river that hems her in on one side, a storm drain where she hides a pair of boots that she pops on and off as she moves between the domestic trailer-park realm that embarrasses her and the public space where she is determined to forge an identity. And Dequenne trudges her way across these thresholds and through these ritual behaviors without the slightest affectation.
The net effect is to turn Rosetta into one of the most earthy, tangible presences imaginable. This is a cinema of the body and after I spent far too much time trying to develop this point, I read the liner notes and found that Kent Jones had already said it far better than I can: “We become intimately familiar with her sturdy legs; her compact, bullish frame; her stunning, fresh face, in a state of perpetual animal alert.” Rosetta’s monomania doesn’t render her an insubstantial caricature because Dequenne interacts so fiercely with her environment. When the boss (played by Dardenne go-to Olivier Gourmet) fires her because his lazy son needs the work, she wraps her arms around a sack of flour in the kitchen and refuses to let go, another in a long line of intimate embraces in the Dardennes’ oeuvre. In the grueling final scene, Dequenne almost crumples under the weight of a bulky gas canister she hauls along a seemingly expanding pathway back to her trailer. Rosetta is a singularity; she is an anchor; she is real.
The impact of Dequenne’s blunt force performance and the equally relentless camera (manned athletically by Alain Marcoen) is so visceral, it would have been a shock if she didn’t win the Best Actress Award at Cannes that year, but fortunately the jury was watching the same movie as everyone else. The Dardenne brothers took home the Palme d’Or as well (no word on which one gets custody on weekends) and cemented their central place in the modern canon. Many consider “Rosetta” their finest work. I probably favor “La promesse.” It hardly matters.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. “Rosetta” must have been a bit of a challenge for a high-def transfer with so many close-up shots with sharp movements and its overall grainy look. There were a few minor issues with some shots in the transfer in “La promesse,” but I didn’t notice any difficulties here. The grain isn’t quite as thick here as in “La promesse,” leaving the impression os slightly crisper detail. The colors are relatively muted as they are supposed to be.
“La promesse” was bumped up to a 5.1 track from its theatrical 2.0 release, but “Rosetta” stays at a 2.0. I can’t say I noticed any major difference. The sound mix is fairly straightforward, but there are times that the off-screen world becomes very important and these moments (ambient sounds on the street, the threatening sounds of a buzzing mopeds) are treated well by the DTS-HD Master Audio surround track. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The disc includes a lengthy interview (62 min.) with the Dardenne brothers, conducted in Belgium in 2012 by critic Scott Foundas. A small bit of material is directly repeated from the similar interview included on Criterion’s “La promesse” disc, but the vast majority of it is new and specifically addresses “Rosetta.” The most interesting parts deal with their working relationship with Emilie Dequenne and the way the crew united behind her once they had full faith in her prowess. Foundas speaks in English; the Dardennes in French with English subtitles provided.
We also get new 2012 interviews with actress Emilie Dequenne and actor Olivier Gourmet (18 min.). Their interviews are recorded separately, but are edited together for this feature. A Trailer is also included.
The 12-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Kent Jones.
With “Rosetta,” Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne put to rest any concert that “La promesse” would be a fluke. It also solidified the Dardennes as an official brand, and a dominant force in modern cinema. They haven’t slowed down one bit, receiving ample and well-deserved plaudits for their most recent film “The Kid With A Bike” (2011). “Rosetta” is one of the defining films of the past two decades, and it has not previously been made available on DVD in North America, so this clearly counts as one of the major releases of 2012.