Nothing indicts this year's Oscar list more than the omission of Rosetta from the list of nominees for best foreign film. For the stupidity and ignorance of this oversight, the constituent members of the "Academy" deserve to have their ears nailed to the bumpers of their hired limos. Because this film, a deserving winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, is a stunning and remarkable achievement.
Written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, using mostly one hand-held camera, and without a musical score, Rosetta is broadly in the tradition of Bresson's Mouchette and Fellini's Nights of Cabiria: an uncompromising depiction of real poverty and the terrible gravitational pull of ennui and despair that this exerts. It is also a luminous and compassionate account of a young woman struggling to climb out of the swamp of want: by turns furious, frustrated, and strangely impassive.
Emilie Dequenne is the 18-year-old non-professional that the Dardennes brothers discovered to carry the burden of this film, and what an astounding discovery she is: we have 90 minutes in which she is rarely out of shot, and often in the most searching close-up, the camera recording every flinch, every grimace, and - in one very moving moment - her single, radiantly beautiful smile. It is one of the most extraordinary, unselfconscious performances in the cinema at present, and Dequenne makes most "acting", with its tinpot cliches of gesture and hand-me-down inanities, look very paltry indeed.
Rosetta lives with her slatternly, alcoholic mother on a Belgian caravan site and burns with nothing more than a desire for what the bourgeoisie take for granted: a regular job, a regular life. She gets by on a sort of tinker existence, selling second-hand clothes that her mother mends in rare moments of sobriety. But even the dire blue-collar jobs she wants are in short supply; the scent of her angry desperation repels nervous managers and she always returns to the arena of her domestic shame. This is the terrible trailer-park where her mute mother, catatonic with drink and self-loathing, exemplifies the dizzying abyss of futility over which Rosetta now finds herself teetering.
This picture focuses with cold, resolute clarity on what poverty means. It finds its locations in both the town and in a kind of degraded pastoral: Rosetta is expelled from the grisly Edens of shop and factory work and has to scrape an existence poaching on a riverbank accessed through a torn fence: trapping fish in broken bottles.
The material detail of all this is conveyed with compelling neutrality, and with a subtlety that rewards repeat viewings. It was only when I watched it for a second time that I noticed that Rosetta appears to have had her mother customise the apron she wears as a saleswoman on a waffle stand: the word "Rosetta" is tinily embroidered. How she loves that terrible job. Discharging its obligations looks like a living death, but to Rosetta it is a badge of human dignity, of existence, worth doing anything for, including a terrible act of betrayal against Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), a boy who is clearly in love with her.
The Dardennes' camera is always there, jogging alongside Rosetta as she grimly walks everywhere, rarely or never able to afford the bus. It peeps warily around corners, the way Rosetta does; it is breathlessly at her side, like an anxious child or nervy younger sibling, concerned at all times to keep Rosetta's face in plain view. It may whip-pan round, nervously to confront whatever deceitful man is standing in Rosetta's way, but always swings compulsively back to Rosetta's face like a compass needle.
Often she and it are on the run. Rosetta is always running: running like a devastated child from employers who are taking her job away, running to catch her truant mother, running away from Riquet. And the camera scrambles after her, seeming to join in with the desperate and demeaning grapple that invariably ensues. There is an element of absurdity here, almost farce, but the effect is one of pathos, rather than black comedy: Rosetta is still struggling and has not collapsed into despair.
There is a clarity and severity in this film that takes it beyond an Anglo-Saxon realm of social realism or miserabilism: this is a film with a rigorous transforming gaze, a strange and passionate urgency. Every time I watch it, it becomes more moving, more commanding, more exceptional. It is a film whose grace and lyricism has earned it, simply, the status of classic: something of real greatness.