My introduction to filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne began with the recent Criterion Blu-ray release of their first critically acclaimed film 'La Promesse.' Not faltering in the slightest is their latest film to join the Criterion Blu-ray collection, 'Rosetta.'
Much like 'La Promesse,' 'Rosetta' paints a stark picture of the social woes created by Belgium's economy and bold division of classes. Our titular central character is a feisty and prideful teenage working girl. The opening scene shows Rosetta getting fired from a "worker bee" position in a large factory. Instead of taking the bad news with grace, she fights it, getting into an argument with the foreman, confronting the co-worker that she believes is responsible for the firing, and refusing to leave the building. Rosetta literally goes out with a fight and ultimately has to be dragged out kicking and screaming.
When Rosetta arrives home from her last day of work, we learn of the sad dichotomy of her home life. She and her mother live in a camper unlike the trailers found in most trailer parks. Their camper is more like a Pikey caravan from 'Snatch' - cold and cramped. This is the depressing lifestyle that they have become accustomed to because of their role reversals. Rosetta is the parent in their home, constantly watching and babysitter her own alcohol-dependent mother. Mom doesn't work, but offers sexual favors to pay for a few bills and booze. Several scenes with the two involve uncomfortable domestic violence.
With the bills stacking up and no job in sight, Rosetta scours the city for employment. No type of work is beneath her. Wherever she goes, she inquires about open positions. After being pushy time and time again, she finally lands a position with a man who owns a set of waffle stands. (According to 'Rosetta,' yes – a lot of folks in Belgium eat Belgian waffles.) Her new career begins by making large batches of waffle mix that will be dispersed to the various stands. The remainder of the film shows how Rosetta juggles her new job, her dependent mother and a newfound friend of the opposite sex, all while struggling financially in this unstable economy.
The reality of Rosetta's world is made gritty and real not only through her oppressed life story, but through the way in which the brothers Dardenne decided to shoot the film. 'Rosetta' is shot entirely with an up-close and personal documentary style. Frequently being in the face of Émilie Dequenne, who plays Rosetta, we see every bit of anguish, angst, pain, anger and shame in her face. Being confined to the tiny camper during Rosetta's fights with her mother make them feel just as disturbing and unsettling as they should be.
'Rosetta' isn't a movie that you can watch with frequency. It's not uplifting or pleasing. Instead, it's the type of film that you watch for a reminder of how brilliant raw and intimate filmmaking can be. Although you won't walk away wanting to immediately watch it again, you'll leave with a deep appreciation for it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Rosetta' arrives on a Region A BD-50 in the standard-to-Criterion clear keepcase and carries the Criterion code 621. As always, a booklet is included that contains an essay, this one written by film scholar and critic Kent Jones. Also included in the booklet are still photos, production credits and notes about the transfer. When you pop the disc in, not a thing plays before the main menu.
'Rosetta''s 35mm raw presentation has been cleaned and transferred to a great 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. The film has been remastered in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio with the help of Director of Photography Alain Marcoen, so you know that this transfer is going to have a lot of love added to it.
The folks at Criterion have done a marvelous job cleaning up 'Rosetta.' Only a handful of age-revealing flaws (scratches or debris) exist. The vast majority have been seamlessly hidden. A nice dusting of film grain covers the picture, but not enough to make it an ugly distraction.
I was especially impressed by the saturation and boldness of the colors. The occasionally bright and loud colors are explosive in front of the bleak gray backdrop of perpetually cloudy Belgium. Aside from a few night scenes, there aren't many blacks that make their way into the film. When they do, they often appear gray, lacking the darkness that should make the picture even more ominous.
There aren't any instances of banding, artifacts, aliasing or digital noise.
Just as the video quality was pristinely cleaned up, so is the audio. As the booklet explains, "The original 2.0 surround sound track was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35 mm magnetic tracks." Not a single noticeable flaw remains. 'Rosetta' has been completely cleaned of any clicks, thumps, hiss and hum, of which the booklet explains there were many. There isn't a single sign of damage.
An interesting directorial decision was made to keep the film score-less. The imagery has enough of an impact on its own, so music wasn't necessary to convey the desired emotion. The front-heavy nature of this 2-channel mix works very well with the realistic audio. Had this mix contained scoring, then it's more than possible that a 2.0 track would have felt congested, leaving viewers longing for a bigger mix. As is, 2-channel is suitable.
Lending itself solely to vocals, effects and environmental sounds, the lack of music drives you to notice the other sounds more than most audio tracks. The audio that does exist sounds fantastic, making up for the should-be void. For example, while laying in her narrow trailer bedding, Rosetta hears an annoying sound that keeps her from enjoying the peaceful silence – the slightest gap between weatherstripping and a window pane has allowed for the blustery wind to quietly whistle its way through. Before Rosetta noticed the sound, I heard it and thought that it was a problem from a window in my own home. Any other sound would have bogged down the meaningful impact of that scene.
I always expect Criterion Collection releases to do just one thing: introduce me to a creative and unique picture that I might not otherwise know about. Having great restorations is just an added bonus that makes the expensive cost worth the price. Just like the Dardenne Brothers' previous Criterion release, 'La Promesse,' expect nothing less from the Criterion release of 'Rosetta.' The bleak intimate story is done perfect uncomfortable justice by exemplary realism in its directing. Lead actress Émilie Dequenne's performance is perfect, never once seeming like she's performing for the camera that's only inches from her face. The video quality is very good. The audio – despite being a 2.0 mix – is quite strong. Criterion has only placed a few special features on the disc, but both are new 2012 recordings that offer great insight into the making of the film and how it came to be. Thanks to Criterion, I've now found two more international filmmakers who deserve my attention: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.