Ever since Rosetta won the top prize at this year’s Cannes festival, American journalists have puzzled over the jury’s decision, or written it off as mere insolence. To hear them tell it, the film is so slight as to flirt with nonexistence. There are no stars and no big actorly turns, no amusing settings and no enviable clothes, no songs, no suspense, no excitement, no romance–nothing but an angry and impoverished 18-year-old girl, living in a trailer park outside some Belgian town that looks as if it were all poured from the same cement mixer.
This description is accurate in fact; but it is not truthful. It doesn’t tell you that Rosetta is both subtle and stunningly direct; that its narrow focus is more like a stare, at once penetrating and compassionate; that suspense, excitement, romance and even music animate the picture–though an audience habituated to American movies might not notice these qualities without first purging itself. A painless procedure: Simply abandon the things you think you know; stop busying yourself with emotions you think you should feel. Open your eyes, ears and mind to Rosetta, and discover how full this movie can be.
At the film’s center–and its periphery, too, since she occupies every frame–is the title character, played by Emilie Dequenne, who shared the prize for best actress at Cannes. Before Rosetta, she had not appeared in front of a camera; she performed as if she believed, once the filming stopped, she would no longer exist at all. From the opening scene onward, Dequenne seems to hurl herself against the world, which is as much of a strategy as the character herself can manage.
We first see her from behind, without knowing why she’s stomping and panting her way down a corridor. The camera, which is handheld throughout the movie, chases after Rosetta, scarcely able to keep up with her fury. Suddenly, in a blur of action, she is in a shouting match. She has completed a training program at a factory, only to be told there are no jobs–and now, in desperation, she not only refuses to leave the premises but assaults the personnel manager.
So much for introductions. It’s only when she’s been peeled off her opponent and is outside again, riding the bus toward home, that we get a clear view of Rosetta. She has the sort of broad, flat face that runs down in straight lines from hairline to jaw, then slants in abruptly to a square little chin–features that are left harshly unframed, since her dark hair is sheared no more carefully than a dog’s. Her costume–a zippered sweatshirt, a jacket with red and black stripes, a short skirt that looks too flimsy for the weather–leaves her looking short and chunky. You can believe this young woman subsists on waffles and French toast.
In the washed-out light that predominates in Rosetta, these brute facts strike the eye bluntly. And yet half the action is invisible. You observe the minute details of Rosetta’s routine–the way she hides her town shoes in an out-of-use drainpipe, the way she sneaks into the trailer park from the rear, through the woods–but the reasons for these actions never rise to the surface. That’s the subtlety of Rosetta: The film is as reticent as its protagonist, who refuses to let people see her enter the trailer park and won’t expose her precious shoes in that place.