Rosetta (1999)

“Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta. You found a job. I found a job. You’ve got a friend. I’ve got a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won’t fall in a rut. I won’t fall in a rut. Good night. Good night.”

‘Rosetta’, directed by the Dardenne brothers in 1999, is a Belgian drama about a girl (Rosetta), played by Émilie Dequenne, who struggles to find work and tries to care for her alcoholic mother in their home in a caravan park. It’s a brutal, no-frills film. Without music and with an intrusive handheld camera shooting the scenes, it feels like one of those movies in which you’re witnessing or experiencing rather than watching. The film isn’t easy to watch – there is very little lightness throughout. The only time Rosetta smiles is when she attempts to dance with her friend/rival Riquet. For all its simplicity however, the film is full of repeated motifs and the occasional cinematic reference. There’s a strong feeling of François Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ in the arc of the story and in the framing and focus of final moment in the film. In fact, it strikes me that ‘Rosetta’ is in many ways simply an updated version of ‘The 400 Blows’ for a new century. The film is full of memorable moments and imagery, from the repeated actions of the central character to the hounding of her by Riquet, buzzing on a moped and often out of shot. The central performance is utterly convincing and ideally matched for the documentary-like, neorealist form of the film, enigmatically understated and underplayed, but with a seething anger underneath. There is also, perhaps, a surprising homage to Tarkovsky in the final shots of the film. Like Andrei Gorchakov in ‘Nostalghia’, a character who spends much of the end of the film carefully carrying a lit candle from one end of a drained swimming pool to the other in one unbroken shot, Rosetta carries first an empty and then a full gas bottle, struggling under the weight. Both seem to me to be constructing the same metaphor, a condensation of a life into a functional journey to get light at the other end.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s bleak, brutal but completely compelling, the kind of movie that is endured rather than enjoyed, because it’s so important. The obvious double bill would be with ‘The 400 Blows’.

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