Unless you come from the same stock of cinema-obsessed enthusiasm that I do, you’ve never seen a movie like “Rosetta.”

The 1999 winner of the Palme d’Or — the most prestigious award in the world of international cinema handed out annually at the Cannes Film Festival — begins with an explosion.

Several, actually; after the title credits finish rolling, we the viewers find the floor pulled out from underneath our feet with a smash cut  to our heroine bulleting down the halls of a nondescript European factory and slamming doors in our  faces as she races to evade a small throng of pursuers.

Her name is Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne), and the country is Belgium; she’s 16, she lives in a trailer with her alcoholic mother, her ominous stomach cramps have been acting up and she’s just lost her job…again.

Rosetta is unlike most movie characters in that, shockingly, she behaves like a real human being and not a fictionalized personage at the mercy of a screenwriter. Rosetta zigs when we expect her to zag and zags when we expect her to — well, you get the point. As the case would be here, the screenwriters and directors in question are brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, a Belgian filmmaking duo whose propensity for neorealism and whose hands-off documentarian style has netted them many an award in thearthousecinema  festival circuit. Their latest project “Deuxjours, une nuit” with Marion Cotillard  will be making its way to American shores later this year or early next.

In crafting the story of a teenager trapped in an impossible yet far from unrealistic purgatory of unemployment, loneliness and depression, the Dardenne brothers make the commendable choice of prioritizing character over plot. Even if you’re fluent in the language of Hollywood screenwriting or even storytelling in general, you’ll still be taken aback by how stubbornly “Rosetta” refuses to follow any logical conventions of narrative development.

Rather than create a movie from the outside in, starting with the framework of a plot with beats and climaxes and catalysts and what have you, the Dardennes start from the inside and work their way out.

Perhaps “work” isn’t strong enough a word; the character of Rosetta is so unpredictable, so governed by ungovernable impulses, that the film that materializes around her is more akin to the immediate explosive after effects of an atomic bomb’s detonation. You may find yourself gaping in dismay or shaking your head (or, if you’re one of those particularly vocal moviegoers who makes theater experiences worthwhile for the rest of us, yelling in frustration) as Rosetta makes one bizarre choice after another.

Ashamed of where she lives, Rosetta always sneaks into the park where her trailer home resides by darting across the highway, risking life and limb at the hands of those notoriously aggressive European drivers, and crawling under a rusty fence to avoid being seen at the front entrance.

Starving yet brutally self-willed, she refuses to eat a fish her mother obtained as a charitable gift. When she makes a friend who works at a waffle stand, she forgoes all common courtesy and nearly lets him drown in a lake so she can take his job.

Keep in mind, as the Dardennes certainly do, that Rosetta is a person for whom friendship is an alien concept. Product as she is of extreme poverty and a broken family (her dad is completely out of the picture, for reasons never explained), Rosetta is incapable of maintaining the sorts of relationships we so often take for granted.

The film’s final scene is upsetting and unsettling, and while the film doesn’t finish on the tragic note it seems destined to end on — again, the Dardennes have no interest in conforming their art to our expectations — it will leave you nothing short of utterly flabbergasted.

Audiences and jurors at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival certainly were, and “Rosetta” left the Croisette with not only the best film prize but also the best actress prize to boot — might I mention that

Émilie Dequenne had never acted before in her life?

Although Rosetta failed to receive a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards that year, it left a legacy in Belgium far more lasting than a tiny gold statuette, a legacy that took the form of a new set of youth minimum wage laws named after Rosetta herself. Surely the film will make an impression on you, too — and forever alter the taste of those Farmers Market  Belgian waffles —if you can conjure up just 90 minutes in which to watch it this semester.


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