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The bleak poverty drama Rosetta pulled one of the biggest upsets in recent Cannes history

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1999 was supposed to be Pedro Almodóvar’s year at Cannes. From the moment it premièred at the festival, All About My Mother—the Spanish director’s 14th feature, and still one of his most beloved—was heralded as the clear and deserved frontrunner for the Palme D’Or. The jury, however, had other ideas. In an upset that raised eyebrows and ire, Almodóvar was forced to settle for a consolation prize (Best Director, essentially the third-place award) while top honors went instead to a pair of Flemish siblings whose stark style stood in stark contrast to the crowd-pleasing vibrancy of the expected winner.

Rosetta, a pitiless poverty drama from Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, is basically the stylistic antithesis of All About My Mother. Whereas the Almodóvar film is colorful, melodramatic, densely plotted, and rich with music, the Dardennes picture is visually muted, staunchly unsentimental, loosely plotted, and almost completely lacking in music. Consensus among the incensed seemed to be that the jury, headed by Canadian body-horror maestro David Cronenberg, was playing willful contrarian by picking a less popular film. In truth, the selection of Rosetta was probably at least partially a symbolic gesture—a deliberate favoring of minimalism over spectacle, of social agenda over soapy entertainment, of downers over uppers. On the other hand, perhaps Cronenberg and his fellow jurors simply recognized budding master filmmakers when they saw them. Or maybe Rosetta was just fresh in their minds; like the previous two Palme winners, Eternity And A Day and The Taste Of Cherry, it screened on the final day of competition.


In 2013, it seems inconceivable that a Dardenne victory at Cannes could be considered either shocking or controversial. Post-Rosetta, every one of the brothers’ films has won a prize at the festival. (I’ll cover L’Enfant, their second Palme recipient, in a later essay.) The Dardenne output has been so consistent, in fact, that some critics have begun to take them for granted, damning recent triumphs like Lorna’s Silence and The Kid With A Bike with faint praise. But have the directors’ returns really diminished, or is the waning enthusiasm for their work really a reflection of how often it’s has been imitated over the last decade? Influenced by years spent in the trenches of documentary filmmaking, the Dardenne style has been co-opted by countless filmmakers, in movies as wildly different as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and Ursula Meier’s Sister. The brothers’ handheld, quasi-vérité approach has become a kind of indie shorthand, denoting ethnographic interest and an obsession with the daily routines of “ordinary” people.

It can all be traced back to Rosetta. Yes, many of the Dardennes’ regular preoccupations popped up in their previous film, 1996’s The Promise, which announced their enduring fascination with incomplete families, characters living on the edge of society, and motorbikes. But it was Rosetta, about an impoverished teenager trying desperately to find and keep a job, that solidified the Dardenne aesthetic—and the directors’ status as two of modern cinema’s most vital European auteurs. As in just about all of their efforts, the film seems to begin mid-scene, or even mid-stride, with its eponymous 17-year-old heroine storming through a factory to confront her boss, who has opted, for reasons unspecified, to terminate her employment. The lead-up to this opening showdown is a long, furious march through the hallways of the building; it unfolds through what’s become the signature Dardenne shot: The camera follows closely behind an on-the-move subject, its lens trained on the shoulders of this mobile pedestrian.


As a technique, it aligns the perspectives of character and viewer, in a manner not so radically different than that of a third-person video game—though the Dardennes would likely resent such a comparison. (Then again, maybe not: Accurate, specific references to Assassin’s Creed and Resident Evil in The Kid With A Bike suggest that the sixtysomething brothers either did their homework or are secret Playstation junkies.)

Rosetta lives with her alcoholic mother, in a trailer park ironically called The Grand Canyon. Her days, ruled by routine, are spent hunting for jobs, hocking mended clothing to a thrift store, and trying to keep her mother off the bottle and out of the arms of amorous locals. The film presents no past for the character, only a grim, dead-end present; various questions—Where is her father? What is the cause of the intense stomach pain from which she suffers?—go unanswered. Just about everything we learn about the eponymous heroine is from watching her. She appears in nearly every shot, and the camera hovers around her constantly, as though caught in her orbit.

Like Jérémie Renier’s preteen protagonist in The Promise, Rosetta is a child without a childhood—a youth whose innocence has been swallowed whole by an irresponsible parent and the premature onset of adult responsibility. While Renier’s character loses his way because of his job—and his father’s desperate, inhuman attempts to preserve their way of life—Rosetta suffers constantly from her lack of a living. For this struggling heroine, an occupation isn’t just an escape from squalor and hardship, it’s a chance to be a part of something. (Lifelong lefties, the filmmakers irked Marxist fans by offering a protagonist liberated, not alienated, by blue-collar employment.) All that matters to her is holding down a job, but the working world seems almost comically set against her. Thanks to the efforts of a smitten teenage admirer (Fabrizio Rongione), she snags a position at a waffle shop in town, which leads to the film’s most heart-wrenching scene: Rosetta lying awake in bed, quieting telling herself that she’s finally on her way to a normal life. Naturally, she’s laid off the next day.


Because of their trained eye for untrained actors, their stripped-down style, and especially the moral universe in which their films exist, the Dardennes are often cited as disciples of the spiritually minded French director Robert Bresson. If L’Enfant is their Pickpocket—complete with a nearly identical ending—then Rosetta is their spin on Bresson’s Mouchette, which similarly concerns the difficult life of a teenage girl with a perpetually sloshed parent. The key difference is that Rosetta, unlike Mouchette, is no withering wallflower. She’s portrayed, in a remarkable debut performance, by Émilie Dequenne, who split the Best Actress prize at Cannes with Séverine Caneele from L’humanité. Dequenne, whose soft, cherubic features belie her sometimes feral intensity, plays Rosetta as a force of pure determination, bounding from one short-lived job opportunity to the next. Watching her spar with her mother, or the employers who hire and fire her on a whim, it’s possible to imagine a better future for this working-class warrior. The Dardennes underline such optimism with a faintly hopeful final beat, one that allows the character a long-overdue moment of emotional catharsis. Certainly, it’s a rosier, less conclusive coda than the blunt, that’s-all-she-wrote climax of Mouchette.

In terms of both its cinematic and societal impact, Rosetta may be the Dardennes’ most important work. Perhaps the greatest testament to the movie’s power is the profound affect it had on Belgian labor laws. So moved were the nation’s filmgoers by the plight of this fictional sufferer that they successfully lobbied for a new law—nicknamed the “Rosetta Law”—that forbade employers from paying their teenage workers less than minimum wage. Those are the kind of real, tangible results that most socially motivated filmmakers only dream about. As neo-realist polemic, Rosetta is a rousing success. So why does the film feel, some 14 years after its unexpected Palme win, like a lesser effort from the reliable, related directors? Maybe it’s because, for all its gut-punch honesty, it’s a tad one-note in its depiction of economic despair.


Deceptively aimless in their slice-of-life construction, most of the directors’ films are actually sharply, deliberately plotted. The majority of them pivot around a momentous inciting incident, a big event that facilitates a moral dilemma. These occurrences include the accident in The Promise, the sale in L’Enfant, and the setup in Lorna’s Silence. In The Son, the episode happens offscreen, before the events of the narrative proper, but its gradual revelation serves the same purpose. To my eyes, that 2002 stunner is still the Dardennes’ masterpiece: a redemption story that doubles as a nerve-wracking thriller, keeping audiences guessing until its deeply moving finale.

Rosetta has its own version of a crucial moment—a betrayal that demonstrates just how far the heroine is willing to go to land a paying gig—but it arrives a little too late to be considered a driving force of the plot. Mostly, the movie plays with repetition, echoing the monotony of the hardscrabble life it explores: Rosetta looks for a job, Rosetta secures a job, Rosetta loses a job, and repeat. The result sometimes feels more like a tract than a drama, dragging the poor woman through a daily hell to demonstrate a point about what it’s like to be dirt poor.


What keeps all of this from becoming a chore, aside from some considerably graceful compositions, is Dequenne’s career-making performance. She finds a real person in a character that could have come across as a mere victim. The key ingredient is a dash of normal teenage personality, not completely diluted by her adult problems, and most evident during the film’s gentlest passage—a deeply awkward first date in which Rongione makes Rosetta dinner, plays some awful drum demos for her, and teaches her how to dance. (She actually cracks a smile, if only once.) In a movie this oppressively bleak, even a single moment of levity feels like a gift.


Did it deserve to win? On some level, I can empathize with the detractors at Cannes who understandably preferred warmth and wit (see: All About My Mother) to expertly shot misery. But considering that Rosetta literally changed the world, it’s hard to begrudge the film its victory. Was there anything nobler in 1999’s uneven competition slate, which included such duds as Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock and Peter Greenaway’s 8 1/2 Women? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean if I had a seat on that jury I wouldn’t push for a personal favorite. Minimalist in its own right, and just as moving as Rosetta, David Lynch’s uncharacteristically sweet The Straight Story would have been my pet choice. Yes, Lynch won for Wild At Heart a few years earlier. But The Straight Story is a better film, not to mention a bold departure for its oddball maker. If there’s anything more award-worthy than a social-realist drama that inspires actual labor reform, it’s the director of Blue Velvet making a G-rated heart-warmer.

Next up: Pelle The Conqueror (1988)