Lost in the Movies: Rosetta


Rosetta is about 30 now.

When the Dardenne brothers released their second feature in 1999, their title character (Emilie Dequenne) was a teenager saddled with more responsibility and less comprehension than many of her peers - at once an adult (more so than her own mother) and a child, prone to temper tantrums and exasperated confusion as she's asked to play by rules she doesn't even understand. In the end, it appears Rosetta may not even make it to 30, and the raw immediacy of the Dardennes' style and pace (both the character and the viewpoint - trying to keep up - never stop moving, as if they're playing a sort of neorealist video game) make such questions seem irrelevant while you're watching.

Yet afterwards you wonder. Not only Rosetta's age but the world situation and film aesthetics have changed over time - the latter in large part because of this film and others by its filmmakers. The story, simply following Rosetta's desperate search for a job in an often indifferent but sometimes sympathetic Belgian city, was actually criticized by some intellectuals in '99. Why would this impoverished individual actually seek employment instead of defiantly ridiculing or ignoring the capitalist system and its values? Where was her rebellious instinct? Others conveniently reinterpreted the material to celebrate Rosetta's get-ahead mentality, making her a kind of icon of the no-bullshit underclass, but this reading doesn't quite work either because the person she most hurts in her driven quest is Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), the young man who tries hardest to help her.

Today, the bohemian what-me-work? attitude of the 90s seems utterly out-of-touch. One has to be gainfully employed in the first place to fret over the "alienation effect" of work. Hence, Rosetta seems more relevant than ever and so do its themes - the complexity of "fairness" and "honesty" in a dog-eat-dog world (spoiler: Rosetta tattle-tales on her would-be friend, who is cheating his boss, and she gets his job: scrupulous integrity or selfish gamesmanship?). Rosetta alternately seems ruthless (the above scenario, and also a sequence where she almost drowns the same character) and naive (as she grows upset when being terminated, having foolishly assumed that working hard is all you need to do).

Likewise I found her at times infuriating - her treatment of Riquet is utterly callous and certainly unloyal - and at others admirable, depending upon the situation in which she applied her fairly consistent values. If Rosetta is still with us, I hope she learned how to treat other people honorably. Yet I also hope she maintained her own strong-willed code of ethics, at least to apply to herself; our world needs a sense of honor, no matter how quixotic.

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