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Rosetta, 1999

Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) lives on the fringe of untenable poverty along with her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux). Frantic to find a steady job after being let go from her previous workplace, Rosetta is hired to work at a waffle stand, where she forms a tentative friendship with Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione). But the emotional weight of her mother’s behavior and her desperation to make a living for herself threaten to upend everything.

A strong synthesis of style and content, this is a compelling and intense look at a life on the margin.

The idiom “a slow motion car crash” seems very appropriate to both the film and Rosetta’s life itself, and over the course of 90-some minutes we can only watch as Rosetta makes decisions in fight-or-flight mode.

Rosetta is a fascinating protagonist. She does not want to take charity. She is determined not to follow her mother’s path of accepting “favors” from men and then escaping into an altered state of oblivion. She wants to work. She wants to earn an honest living. She reacts passionately, and sometimes with physical resistance, when she runs up against heartless policies and nepotism.

There is something particularly harrowing about films where you have to honestly admit that, even though the protagonist doesn’t always make the best choices, the cards are clearly stacked against them. It doesn’t matter how well Rosetta performs at her job when the boss’s son flunks out of school and needs a job. When you consider the way that Rosetta is stranded between being a teenager and being an adult, the weight on her shoulders seems impossible. In one heartbreaking scene, Rosetta gives herself a self-affirming pep talk, trying to assure herself that she is on the right path. It’s a pep talk that should be coming from her mother or any other trusted adult figure, yet Rosetta has neither biological nor found family to support her in this way.

The style of the film perfectly fits Rosetta’s constant heightened emotional state, the camera circling her and bluntly regarding her with an intimacy and an immediacy that adds a degree of claustrophobia to her story. The colors are drained and everything has the energy of a cloudy day.

An interesting touch to the film is the way that Rosetta is constantly dealing with stomach pains that seem to be period cramps. First, it adds an understanding to her emotional, volatile, and often impulsive actions over the course of the days that we spend with her. It also serves as a reminder of how close Rosetta could be to having a baby of her own---something that would significantly worsen her circumstances. Finally, it adds this element of physical discomfort that might just be the final straw for a young woman who is already on the edge.

The performances across the board are very strong, especially Dequenne’s starring turn as Rosetta. The characters feel lived-in, and their desires, fears, and motivations are all there to grasp from just a few moments and conversations.

A heartbreaking, but compelling, slice-of-life.