Families can be tense. There might be an uncle who smells, or a cousin who insists on showing everybody pictures of himself flexing his muscles. But are you a jobless seventeen year old, living in a caravan park with your alcoholic mother who, in the few moments of the day that she is sober, performs favours for the landlord in return for running water? Catching fish in the local river, with extreme and unexplained stomach pains?
Rosetta has it bad. This is her life as she stumbles between catastrophes, when all she needs is a centre to her life. Something to revolve around, instead of living in a whirlwind of chaos. A routine. This is a world where Rosetta is drowning when everybody else seems to be treading water, even though their lives are nothing special. Her aspirations aren’t grand – she just wants a permanent, safe job. She works making waffles, but is let go when her training period is over. Same with the job she is in the process of losing when the film opens, violently, Rosetta a ball of hot fury in a white coat and hat.
The film maintains this energy as it bubbles away, manifested through the constantly moving handheld cinematography – the default shot of Rosetta is a shot of her back, as she runs into or away from her next problem. She has a horrible life, and most of the time, we’re chasing her through it.
A popular misconception about the film is that it forced, through the sheer power of cinema, a change in the law on underage working hours and rates of pay. This isn’t true; according to the Dardenne brothers themselves, the law already existed but the Belgian government, to tie in with the success of the film at Cannes (it won the Palm d’Or), named the new rules the Rosetta law. The film does an excellent job of highlighting the plight of young carers who also need to work, to provide, who end up being exploited by their bosses.
Olivier Gourmet is great (again) as the boss of the waffle stand, in a role less seedy than his others for the brothers, and he gets a great scene to sink his teeth into, as Rosetta finally gets the upper hand in a circumstance that has seen her rejected time and again. It may not quite be a happy ending, but it’s something better than what she had before.
The film is pitilessly, relentlessly honest. Rosetta isn’t an angel, and she’s not perfect, not by a long stretch. She isn’t saved by a prince, and she doesn’t win the lottery. This is a film about the small horror that life can consist of, and does consist of, for some people. It’s fantastic.
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