“The heart that is low now will be at the full tomorrow” (R.S.Thomas)
The award of the 1999 Cannes Palme d’Or to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s “Rosetta” met with general surprise and confusion. Screened at the very end of competition, the film had slipped through a crowd of acclaimed rivals, unheralded and largely unnoticed.
Reminiscent of Bresson’s “Mouchette”, it concerns a teenage loner who lives in a run-down Belgian trailer park with an alcoholic mother, battles desperately to find work and is obliged to draw on her own resources to survive – emotionally and physically – a tough, bleak life.
In “Rosetta” the hand-held camera clings to the central character like an umbilical cord. Yet such is the film’s rigorous authenticity and power that it breaks free of its constraints and soars.
This achievement owes much to the director’s searching unsentimental honesty but more still to an outstanding, intensely concentrated performance from young Emilie Dequenne. Inhabiting her character in her breathing, her posture, in every minutest detail, Dequenne simply is Rosetta. Vulnerable, burdened and suspicious, but fiercely, at times ferociously, determined, she is a seemingly indomitable warrior with no trace of self-pity, charged with an extraordinary feral force.
From its dramatic expressive opening, in which Rosetta’s walk conveys a world of meaning, the film is endowed with scenes of memorable impact, most notably the near-drownings and the tender, reassuring repetitions with which Rosetta sends herself to sleep.
“Rosetta” might even be said to justify Godard’s famous statement that film is the truth twenty four times a second, and never more so than in its final moment. Mercilessly hounded by a young man whose friendship she had betrayed, Rosetta at last crumples in tearful, defeated exhaustion. By resolutely continuing to focus not on his reaction but on the girl herself, the Dardennes capture an expression which conveys a wonderful sense of compassion, acceptance and hope.