Rosetta is a 1999 French-Belgian film written and directed by the Dardenne brothers. It is about a seventeen-year-old girl (played by Émilie Dequenne) who lives in a caravan park with her alcoholic mother. Trying to survive and to escape her situation, she makes numerous attempts at securing a job, which would allow her to move away from the caravan and her dysfunctional mother and have a stable life.
Contrary to popular belief the film did not inspire a new so called "Rosetta Law" in Belgium prohibiting employers from paying teen workers less than the minimum wage and other youth labour reforms. In a Guardian interview with the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre explained the misconception; "No, that law already existed, it just hadn't been voted through yet, the truth is always less interesting than the fiction."
When her probationary employment ends, Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) causes a violent struggle against her manager and the policemen when she refuses to leave the premises. She returns home to "The Grand Canyon", the caravan park shared with her alcoholic mother who mends worn clothes for her to sell. Rosetta is also seen laying out traps to catch trout for food. Unable to receive unemployment pay and desperate for work, Rosetta goes around to ask about vacancies until she happens upon a waffle stand. She befriends the worker, Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), after an enquiry. Rosetta treats her period cramps with pain relievers and a hairdryer massaging the area.
Riquet makes an unexpected visit to the caravan park, startling Rosetta. He informs her a colleague was fired and thus she will be able to have a job. Her mother's promiscuity resulting from alcoholism prompts Rosetta to encourage her to seek rehabilitation clinic so they can finally have a better life. However, her persistent denial causes her mother to run away. Rosetta decides to stay with Riquet for the night. During the awkward evening, she discovers a waffle iron in his possession. As she lies in bed, she tries to convince herself that her life has started to function normally.
At work, she is replaced after three days by the owner (Olivier Gourmet) because his son failed school, leading to another violent confrontation. Rosetta is moderately pacified when he tells her she will be contacted if an opportunity arises. She begins a new search for employment while keeping Riquet company during work. Later, Riquet falls into the water when he helps Rosetta with her traps. She watches him thrashing in the muddy water and hesitates before helping him out. Later she discovers Riquet has been selling his own waffles during business hours from his offer of an under the table job helping him mix the batter. After some contemplation, she tells the owner. Rosetta looks on as Riquet is thrown out of the stand and is handed his apron. Betrayed and hurt, Riquet chases Rosetta on his moped as she attempts to evade him. Eventually he catches up to her and demands her motive. She states she wanted a job and had no intention of saving him from the water.
Rosetta encounters Riquet as a customer when she begins her first day in his stead. She returns home to find her mother barely conscious and inebriated out the front, dragging her inside and putting her to bed. She calls her boss and tells him she will not be at work the next day. She then turns on the gas to make an egg and leaves the gas running in an attempt to asphyxiate herself and her mother. The gas runs out. She goes to the landlord to ask for another canister of gas. As she hauls the canister of gas with great difficulty, Riquet, on his moped, appears to circle around her. Rosetta walks a short distance before collapsing to the ground and cries. Riquet grabs her by the arm to pick her up. She turns around to gaze at him as she slowly regains her composure.
Rosetta was released to overwhelmingly positive reception by American mainstream press and critics, who cited the lack of a musical score and use of a handheld camera throughout its production as a major factor in its overall unique tone. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports 89% of critics gave the film positive reviews, with a rating average of 7.6 out of 10. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 76, based on 19 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Derek Elley of Variety notes the film is "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." Stephen Holden of The New York Times gave a more critical review due to the prevalent gloom, stating Rosetta " is so clinically detached from its subject and its screenplay so minimal that we never really feel the title character's intense suffering or even get to know her very well. As she spirals into despair, the film's heavy, social-realist angst feels more than a little contrived...Instead of feeling universal, the movie feels claustrophobic." In his review for Boston Globe Jay Carr surmises, "The bleakness of Rosetta will not be for all, but it's one of the best films of the year."
Roger Ebert gave Rosetta three and a half stars in Chicago Sun-Times noting its "neorealist, without pedigree, downbeat, stylistically straightforward" nature. He further commented, "The film has an odd subterranean power. It doesn't strive for our sympathy or make any effort to portray Rosetta as colorful, winning or sympathetic. It's a film of economic determinism, the story of a young woman for whom employment equals happiness. Or so she thinks until she has employment and is no happier, perhaps because that is something she has simply never learned to be." Peter Bradshaw writing for The Guardian lauded Rosetta to be "a rigorous transforming gaze, a strange and passionate urgency. Every time I watch it, it becomes more moving, more commanding, more exceptional. It is a film whose grace and lyricism has earned it, simply, the status of classic: something of real greatness." Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewing for Chicago Reader extolled the film as showing an extraordinary capability of maintaining an objective view into the world of the protagonist and "the most visceral filmgoing experience of the past year, including all of Hollywood's explosions and special-effects extravaganzas".
The French press were also enthusiastic about the film. Jean-Pierre Dufreigne reviewing for L'Express highly recommended Rosetta to readers regardless of polarization because of its tenacious depiction of youth straining to preserve their integrity while bearing adult responsibilities and the effective use of the camera to capture the essence of the protagonist. Marine Landrot writing for Télérama gave additional praise to Rosetta, noting the role reversal between Rosetta and her mother signified the inherent desire in childhood comforts as both yield to the pressures afflicted by modern society.
The film unanimously won the Palme d'Or and the Best Actress awards at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. The film also received the André Cavens Award for Best Film by the Belgian Film Critics Association (UCC), and the Golden Pegasus from the 2000 Flaiano International Prizes for Best Director. Belgium's submission of Rosetta was not nominated for the 72nd Academy Awards. Émilie Dequenne won the CFCA Award for Most Promising Actress from the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, tied with Julia Stiles of 10 Things I Hate About You and was nominated for the Most Promising Actress at the 25th César Awards.
At the 2000 Joseph Plateau Awards, it was presented with the Joseph Plateau Award for Best Belgian Actress, Best Belgian Director, Best Belgium Film, and Box Office Award while Olivier Gourmet received a nomination for Best Belgium Actor. Other nominations included the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film and the European Film Awards for Best Actress and Best Film.