This film, set in the French speaking part of Belgium, is a powerful piece of social realism. As well, it does indeed use interesting and fresh camera perspectives, so unwaveringly physically close to the attractive young (17 or so) protagonist (Emilie Dequenne in her first film role) that it merges third and first person perspectives. In this it is somewhat like the French film "A Single Girl", only it takes the technique considerably further. In "Rosetta" the perspective sometimes goes almost all the way over to first person, as when shot about one foot from her face at about 90 degrees, with a wide angle lens, as she determinedly strives from one task to another in her caravan park. I agree by commentators below however that at times the camera is too unsteady. That bit of low rent cinema realte could use a bit of stabilization.
I was struck, however, by how poorly understood the overall narrative perspective or "message" of this film often is, judging by the other comments here. Most seem to feel that the film, though it has interesting camera techniques, and is well acted by an interesting young lead, sends not only a depressing message, but also a confused and pointless one. Or others have said it goes no deeper than saying life isn't fair, or that the circumstances of poverty can reduce the poor to atomistic, asocial competition, where they are impelled to turn even on their friends.
Well, that's part of it, but it misses the larger point.
There is no effort in this film to portray Rosetta as "every girl" -- who copes just like anyone else would in her situation. No, her's is instead a striking personality, that pushes the boundaries in some ways. She is not ordinary, but extraordinary. Yet she is not randomly chosen. I suspect she is in fact closely drawn from someone the writer knew in real life. Regardless, she is a well chosen extraordinary type.
Rosetta is an answer to social Darwinists, or those who tend in that direction, in their philosophy of poverty, and how it can be readily escaped if people only bring the "right stuff" to the struggle. I suspect that the prevailing (liberal to socialist) social ideology among those who tend to view and like films such as this has blinded most from even seeing that that is what this film is primarily addressing. Rosetta is a Machiavellian striver, with a lot of personal qualities on the ball. Yet she still can't get on a road to rise -- at least within the time ambit of this slice of her life.
First the poverty that Rosetta finds herself in with her mother is extreme and unusual in a Northern European country. It is obviously a result of her mother's extreme alcoholism. They don't live in a fairly physically comfortable, if drab, flat in a public assistance building filled with other people, if usually dysfunctional ones full of raging against the established orders one way or another, along with some sort of fellowship. They live in virtual isolation in a caravan park in a tiny one room mobile hut, of the sort designed to be pulled behind a car and used by the French lower classes for inexpensive summer vacations. Usually these have considerable tent extensions for use in warmer climes and times of the year, but any such are missing here. Her dumpy, unkempt, bloated (but one can see once cute) mother is a late stage falling down drunk, lost in utter hopelessness -- about as bad as it gets. She isn't violent, but she is utterly self degraded. She matter-of-factly trades crude sexual favors to the caravan park manager to have the water turned back on. We have to believe this and worse is nothing new. Her daughter walks in on them as they are finishing, and simply demands a receipt for the paid utility bill. The mother has drunk away all of her public assistance money, even though her deal with her daughter was that she would at least cover the utilities, while her teenage daughter somehow scrounges the rent. Rosetta begs her mother to go to a treatment program for her extreme alcoholism, but the mother doesn't want to. Soon afterwards her mother runs away, Rosetta runs after her, tries to stop her, tackles her, her mother worms free, and kicks Rosetta into the shallow caravan park pond, where she almost drowns in the viscous, quicksand-like, suspended mud, as her mother disappears over the fence. Rosetta at 17 or so is in the early stages of pregnancy.
Rosetta is desperate to escape this hopeless poverty, but to somehow do it without abandoning her mother. She does indeed campaign for real work, any steady job, like it is a glorious and crucial prize of war. Living off of welfare or trying to game it is the last thing she wants -- that is the hopeless "rut" she is desperate to not fall into herself, as her mother so horribly has. Her determination is fierce. She strides everywhere at double time, just short of running. Her eyes are steely determination. She gets trial period work, at least, at a bakery, and goes about her tasks with quick determination and focus. She is all business and competence. Soon she loses this job before the social welfare protections against firing without cause, and with benefits, kick in, as she has lost other ones. In this case it's because the owner feels he has to give the position to a far less determined distant relative when he shows up. (Of course it is this same social welfare scheme which has much to do with the difficulty of getting permanent jobs beyond the trial period -- and is a good part of why the unemployment rate in continental Western Europe is chronically around 10% or sometimes worse. That is background the movie does not discuss, though continental Western Europeans will all be aware of it, with varying causal social interpretations of course.)
She goes back to the bakery and other work places regularly, again and again, searching for stable, real, work. She is in the face of the owner -- 'is anything available'. 'It's too soon, too soon he keeps telling her -- try later'. She won't take the social hint, and give up, or at least give up there. She doesn't care how annoying she is -- but she stops short of actual physical aggression. She doesn't act out in frustration and trash that place or any place. Everything she does is calculated, and controlled. But she'll do almost anything to avoid "the rut".
We learn it is almost, rather than actually anything, when she starts down the path of killing to get ahead, staged as an intelligently conceived if perhaps spur of the moment accident. But she pulls back, finds a long branch, and helps him escape the viscous bottomless muck in the same pond she almost drowned in. She will do something else though. Soon she ends up betraying the young waffle stand operator, only a few years older than she, who works for the bakery "boss". He is one of the few people who have tried to help her in a personal way, and to befriend her without even coming on to her, at least in any crude way. But she is determined and she has something on him, something he has revealed to her to try to help her -- it is enough to get him fired and her hired in his place.
Soon that too turns to muck. Not because she doesn't do a good job. She is all immediate competence, simply from her prior observation of him at work. But her mother has returned home after days of disappearance, collapsed outside the entrance to their mobile hut, and she needs care and motivation to live -- or will probably soon die. Rosetta calls "the boss" and quits the waffle stand job she had been willing to do almost anything to achieve. As the movie ends she is hauling a too large for her cylinder of gas back to their caravan with an attempt at the same striding speed she has used in searching for work. The young guy waffle stand guy she betrayed once again circles her on his motorbike, again and again, not hitting her, but harassing her, shaming her. The movie ends with her collapsing on the gas tank with her first tears, hopelessly -- and with that same guy coming to her, relenting, and starting to hold her. What will become of Rosetta?
How much more determined could someone in her position be? She is determined to not abandon the one most intimate human link of her life, with her mother, however desperately she is pulling her down, like the muck in that pond. But Rosetta was willing to sacrifice just about anything else. She's as Machiavellian in her determination to get permanent, lasting work, to escape "the rut" of welfare hopelessness, as any fast track corporate climber or ruthless small or large businessman is to prevail. Her social skills may be a bit lacking, but she has no platform whatsoever to work with. And in fact her social ability isn't terrible -- people do respond to her determination, up to a point, and she doesn't senselessly antagonize anyone. She also certainly doesn't play the game of the winsome ingenue who everyone can't help but adopt -- but how realistic is that usually? She has seen her mother sell herself, and that or anything like it is not a route she will take. She doesn't have time for friendship for its own sake -- although she does allow one with the young waffle seller quickly enough when she figures he can help her somehow.
There may well be better ways to go about escaping from Rosetta's situation than the strategy she purses here, but this film certainly graphically illustrates how hard it can be. The film's message is that the usual cliched nostrums from the political right of personal strength, determination and focus on work don't automatically or easily succeed when you are coming from circumstances this far in the gutter, at least in this social environment. The reasons here have nothing to do with being waylaid (understandably or not) by drugs, alcohol, the attraction of quick money crime, loyalty to loser friends, or social alienation.
I'm not saying I necessarily entirely buy the film's message as a matter of social truth, if the message is that the situation for someone in Rosetta's position is nearly hopeless, at least while her mother is still pulling her into the muck -- though I accept it as a partial truth. I would say, although perhaps the filmmakers might not, that high unemployment and large barriers to first permanent work created by the high employer costs of the social welfare system where she is have a lot to do with this situation. But of course none of that is remotely Rosetta's fault, or something she can easily overcome. One wonders why someone as determined as Rosetta didn't find school a route up from her situation. Of course the answer will be that she has since learned some life lessons, matured and changed, partly due to her pregnancy. As well, what doesn't work immediately often does over time, and doesn't require as extreme measures as some which Rosetta resorts to -- which in fact can backfire. Additionally, friendship and loyalty to friends is not only personally satisfying and morally attractive, it is also important in anyone's successes, minor or major. It is not entirely a luxury best dispensed with if you are really desperate, as is Rosetta's decision. But this is arguing social truth. The film makes a graphic contribution to the dialogue that I am unlike to forget.
Actually, it's not at all clear that the film is saying Rosetta cannot eventually climb out -- if she too doesn't succumb to hopelessness, as her mother did. But we do see how hard it is for her not to do that, even with all the grit, determination and focus in the world on the "right" things to succeed -- even to the point of going well overboard. That I think is the real point of "Rosetta". It deserved the award at Cannes.
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