Having seen two of the three most recent Dardenne efforts (2002’s The Son and 1996’s La Promesse), I figured I was prepared for their style. Handheld camera. Close-ups. Following behind characters, without being able to see their faces. What I was not prepared for was the relentless energy that this style can bring to the table. Maybe I just missed it in their other films, but Rosetta (1999) has a much greater immediacy to it than their other work. This, I think, is accomplished in two ways: First, editing. Second, Rosetta, the main character.
The opening scene is a great combination of these two factors. As Rosetta storms down hallways and stairwells on her way to who knows where in some non-descript, fluorescent building, the camera strains to keep up. When she goes through a doorway, sometimes the camera follows. At other times, it cuts ahead, almost as if to say that it couldn’t keep up, and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could they start again. These cuts are immediate, yet the individual shots have continuity to them, in that they continue with her journey through the building. Eventually, as the scene concludes with a confrontation with co-workers, the quick cuts, shaky camera, and extreme close-ups lend a sense of chaos that is appropriate to the character. And while this chaos is not always explicit through the rest of the film, it is always implicit, and through various circumstances, we receive hints about the kind of chaos that must be going on inside Rosetta as she tries to scrape by in life.
She has job troubles, family troubles, and friendship troubles, and has little going for her outside of sheer determination to make something happen for herself. An early scene makes this apparent, as she confronts her mother about some fish she is preparing for dinner. Mom acknowledges that the fish was given to her, which 18-year old Rosetta finds unacceptable. “We aren’t beggars!” she yells at her mother, all the while trying to wrest the fish from her to throw it in the garbage. Rosetta will make it on her own initiative, through her iron will and fierce work ethic. Every time she is offered help, she refuses. She asks for it only once, by my count, and it comes at a particularly low moment for her, when she asks her friend, Riquet, for boots.
This determination and perseverance in her character also reveal themselves in other ways. With the desire for a normal life, yet being surrounded by chaos, Rosetta builds a routine into her life. This includes a hiding place for her boots, her fish traps, and maybe even the waffle stand. She visits these places repeatedly, going through the same motions. These things have a practical purpose, but their placement in the film is at such odds with the hectic pace of the rest of her life that they are almost like touchstones, both for her and for us – finally, something familiar and expected. We know what she is doing with the boots and the traps. We know why she goes to the waffle stand (looking for work).
Yet even with all this structure she tries to build in, and though she finally gets the job, she does not achieve a normal life, at least not like what she had in mind. Even with getting what she wants, she is still confronted with the problems that plague her life, and that cannot be healed with a steady job. All of which leads to the affecting conclusion, where Rosetta’s will reaches its limit. She tries and tries and tries to carry the burden of her life alone, but she cannot. The brilliance of this scene by the Dardenne’s is in being able to illustrate this physically, as Rosetta attempts to get that canister home. As she plods through the RV park, we feel the weight of her burden, yet we cannot do anything to help her. And the only person around, Riquet (on his motorbike, with a use of sound in this scene to create a troubling tension), seems only to want to heap burning coals on her head in judgment. She finally falters, falling to the ground in tears and defeat. She has nothing left. Yet, at her lowest point, there is hope. And in those final few frames, we are treated to a wonderful picture of love and hope. And we have a moment to realize what is happening before the camera cuts away and the credits roll. An abrupt but deeply moving finale – sometimes you can’t make it on your own.