The camera scurries to get a hold of a young woman as she travels ferociously down the hallways of an unknown building. This serves as the opening scene of Rosetta, directed by Luc et Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and becomes the definitive filming style in the 1999 hit.
As we soon find out, the young woman, played by Émilie Dequenne, is the protagonist, a poverty-ridden teenage girl who is fixated on getting a job, that being her only ticket to a normal life far away from her troublesome mother.
The ferocity and anger that we see, as a result of her getting fired, is the physical manifestation of this primal desperation that drives the whole film. What heightens her tenacious hunger is the film’s handheld camera, which offers a shaky and uneasy feel to the film, rendering it more of a documentary than a feature film. The camera is either focusing on the protagonist, with close-ups that lend an immaculate vigilance to her presence, or presenting her point of view, both serving as magnifiers to her desperation.
Even though the actress’s striking physical appearance captures the attention, it is not the reason Rosetta’s character evokes sympathy. Instead, her solitary moments are when she garners the most sympathy, like when she goes out to the muddy lake to fish out of need, rather than leisure, or when she assures herself late at night that she is on the path to being “normal”.
It is her interaction with people, however, that causes us to be puzzled, as her idea of happiness or normalcy is so tied to having a job that even the death of her seemingly only friend could be pragmatically justified in her head. Even when she goes and visits him at work, she does not look at him with love for what he is, but rather, what he is doing. It seems that she is incapable of human connection. Even through the camera, we are physically close to her but we lack an intimate connection with her.
The film excelled in depicting a grim life that evokes an honest rawness, mostly derived from the performance of the protagonist, but also largely due to the film’s minimalist style. Not only was the camera evoking a sense of uneasiness due to its lack of stability but there was no makeup, minimal dialogue, no musical score, and most of the scenes were shot in muddy, urban landscapes. Additionally, the fact that scenes were repeated emphasised the constant cycle of poverty entrenched in Rosetta’s life, which was can be summarised as: go out, find job, get rejected, fight with mother, and do this all again the following day. A large reason for its grimness is this joyless cycle that seems to handicap the protagonist. As a result, I credit the film’s edginess to Emelie’s explosive performance, which is so persuasive that, when coupled with the film’s minimalistic mise-en-scène, makes for a faultless marriage.