• U.S.

Cinema: Good Work

2 minute read
Richard Corliss

What would you do for a job–a menial, drudging job in a bakery or selling clothes that never were in fashion? If you are Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne), a teenager in today’s depressed Belgium, the answer is anything. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta, which earned this year’s Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or and a Best Actress prize for Dequenne, is the close-up portrait of a girl for whom need has become obsession.

The way medieval saints believed in Jesus, with a fervor bordering on lust, Rosetta believes in employment. Work is her religion: when she gets it, she does it harder (and glummer) than anyone else. When she has no job, she focuses on getting one so maniacally that she is in danger of destroying herself and the one fellow who befriends her. In the trailer park where she lives with her slutty, alcoholic mother, she methodically does the chores. For Rosetta, living is one job she can’t lose. Unless she fires–kills–herself. And when she does decide to commit suicide, she is still a model employee: before turning on the gas, she calls her boss to say she won’t be coming in anymore.

In another country, or in lesser hands, a teenager’s addiction to work could be a subject for comedy; the Dar-denne brothers turn it into tragedy and transcendence. But this dour, powerful film might be just an anecdote without Dequenne, 18. She invests Rosetta with the weird ferocity of an alien creature: a wild angel or a madwoman. This novice actress’s task–finding the shading of realism in what could be a cartoon of misery–is made all the more harrowing by the film’s intense, handheld scrutiny of her face in almost every shot. The purity of Dequenne’s performance inspires awe. To a grubby life she brings dignity, clarity, passion, glory.

–By Richard Corliss

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com