Anchored by a performance of grim determination and almost feral instincts from its lead actress, “Rosetta” is an extremely small European art movie from Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne that will alienate as many viewers as it wins over. Following the day-to-day struggles of a tough Belgian teenager with the basic building blocks of life — a job, money, home life — the movie plays like “Run Lola Run” meets Ken Loach, as the title heroine goes about her chores in a dreary, wintry town. Pic will clearly get a profile boost from copping two prizes at Cannes — best actress and (utterly unexpectedly and against big-name competition) the Palme d’Or — but outside the festival circuit this is very specialized fare that’s more suited to the small screen.
The Dardenne brothers had a small-scale sleeper hit in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight three years ago with their second feature, “The Promise,” a morally probing father-son tale that drew fine reviews, some best foreign film prizes from stateside critics and moderate arthouse business. Their sudden jump into Competition raised considerable hopes for “Rosetta,” which are partly fulfilled thanks to actress Emilie Dequenne’s perf. But the film’s visual style and paucity of dry, offbeat humor prove so different from “The Promise” that “Rosetta” is almost a new beginning rather than a natural development from previous pic’s style and content.
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Movie abruptly starts with the camera frantically following Rosetta (Dequenne) as she’s forcibly ejected from a job for some unexplained reason. Rosetta lives in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux), who has occasional sex with the park’s janitor when she’s not out cold in the trailer; between trying to care for her mom, Rosetta is constantly on the move, scurrying hither and yon, as she searches for a job, scavenges for food, and sells off clothes to earn a few extra francs. She seemingly has no friends or other relatives.
A ray of hope in her restless, head-scarcely-above-water existence appears in the form of Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), who runs a street food stand selling hot waffles; he offers her a place to live and — in the only scene that recalls some of the dry humor of “The Promise” — makes vaguely romantic approaches to her over a meager meal in his grungy apartment. Rosetta gets a bad attack of her recurrent stomach cramps and ankles precipitously — but then returns for something she’s forgotten and asks to sleep over (platonically).
Thanks to Riquet, Rosetta finally gets a job at the bakery, but then is suddenly replaced under a flimsy excuse by the boss (Olivier Gourmet). Determined to get a job at any cost, she ends up betraying the trust and friendliness of Riquet, who’s been quietly cheating the bakery’s owner.
Pic undoubtedly has some powerful moments, mostly centered on scenes in which Rosetta, with whom the audience is expected to sympathize, behaves in shockingly self-protective ways. When Riquet is drowning in a river after trying to help her, she pauses for an agonizing time before deciding to save him; and when she calculatingly betrays him to his boss, she even turns up to face him as he’s fired on the spot.
But the setting of the movie — overcast, wintry urban landscapes, muddy fields and so on — and the antsy visual style — handheld camerawork following her around, often from behind — will turn off many viewers, and the Dardennes pull no dramatic rabbits out of a hat at the end to put any kind of twist or transfiguration on the material.
What the movie does have is a striking perf by 18-year-old non-pro Dequenne who, in her stocky determination, recalls Hungarian actress Lili Monori, working-class heroine of several classic Marta Meszaros movies (“Nine Months”) some 20 years ago. In the handful of pic’s quieter moments, she also shows the makings of an actress beyond the sheer physical parameters of her role. Rongione is simply OK, and other perfs are standard and fleeting.