Rosetta, the new film by the Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, is an undeniably major film. It’s also nearly unwatchable.
The film’s difficulty begins in its subject matter. Like its predecessor, 1996’s brilliant La Promesse, it details the squalid events in the life of an impoverished child. Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) lives in a rural trailer park with her alcoholic mother. She survives by poaching fish and selling clothes, all the while struggling to find the security of a real job.
La Promesse was populated with a rich assortment of characters and situations, which provided some relief from the tragedy of its main storyline. Rosetta is far more single-minded: Dequenne is in virtually every frame of the film. Her world is one of strict limits; she knows only a handful of people, and is in constant conflict with them all.
This concentrated focus should draw us into a deeper understanding of Rosetta, but the film’s relentless visual style precludes any such identification. Every shot is handheld. Dequenne is most often framed in medium closeup from behind: for nearly a third of the film, we watch the back of her head. The film opens with Dequenne running through the factory at which she’s just been laid off, the cameraman chasing behind her, struggling to keep her in frame. It’s an audacious formal choice, but an exhausting one: twenty minutes go by before the camera finally settles, allowing us a moment to breathe.
The framing keeps us from watching Dequenne’s face: we rarely see her eyes, and we’re never provided shots from her point of view. Since we can’t see her, and we can’t see the world as she does, we are kept at arm’s length from her. None of the other characters are really developed – it’s Rosetta’s film – so we’re left with no real point of entry.
Dequenne’s feral performance, though impressive, exacerbates this. Her determination to break away from her life is so complete that her sole motivations are survival and escape. She rages through the film, attacking or betraying everyone she encounters. We see enough of her life to understand this drive, but it doesn’t make it any less trying to endure. It’s rare – and brave – for a film to focus so intently on such a defiantly unlikable character while so completely discouraging our sympathy.
Yet despite the obstacles the film throws in our way, it manages by its final, shattering scene to be affecting on its own terms. For most of its length, the film carefully cultivates an enormous distance between its heroine and the audience. This is broken in a nakedly emotional scene that is all the more overwhelming because of our inability to step inside of Rosetta before that moment. Like La Promesse, the film refuses any easy resolutions or pat sociological explanations, and we’re left exhausted and brutalized. Rosetta is anything but pleasant, but it is a formidable achievement nonetheless.