Ever since the Dardenne brothers gained international attention with their 1996 film La Promesse (a devastating film about the ruthless exploitation of immigrant workers in contemporary Belgium), they continue to surprise with their realistic portrayals of limited opportunities and everyday struggles of the working class. Their filmography is filled with socio-economical criticism and this film is no exception. Although they haven’t filmed nothing less of extraordinary, this may very well be their most complex and well written film since their 1999 masterpiece Rosetta that brought them their first Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.
The central protagonist Sandra is played by Marion Cotillard who excels in what may be her finest performance to date. Sandra is a wife and a mother living in economically devastated Belgium town. She works in a factory (quite possibly for a minimum wage, although her salary is never discussed) and can barely manage to afford their family apartment (there is some discussion of returning to social housing with her husband). Living on a verge of poverty, it doesn’t come as a surprise when we learn that she recently had a nervous breakdown and has a history of depression. Although recovered and eager to work again, her boss doesn’t seem to think that she’s capable of performing her job as efficiently as before. He decides to let her go – but because he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty, he hands the decision over to the employees. After offering them two options (voting for Sandra keeping her job or voting against it and receiving a 1000€ bonus), Sandra gets voted out and is consequently fired from her job. But as it later turns out, some of the co-workers were pressured into the decision, as the foreman supposedly told them that they will be the ones losing their jobs if they vote against firing Sandra. After she confronts the boss about it on Friday afternoon, he agrees on holding another, secret ballot on Monday morning – giving her exactly two days (and one night) to convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses in order for her keeping her job.
What unfolds after that is an amazing and engaging melodrama and an uncompromising character study of a person who wants to get better, but can’t shake off the stigma of being unstable and incompetent to work because of her depression.
Sandra must swallow her pride and go on a weekend journey, begging the people she works with to let her keep her job. Even before she embarks on this difficult journey, we can see her moral dilemma – how can she asks them to give up their bonuses for her? They deserve that money. They need that money. But her husband doesn’t want her to give up that easily, knowing that their family cannot survive on his salary alone. With great difficulty (and with a great help of Xanax), she starts to drive around town, facing her co-workers, one by one. Cotillard’s portrayal of Sandra is nothing short of perfect – her posture, with her shoulders constantly scrunched as if she’s carrying the world’s weight around her neck, is telling us everything we need to know about the troubled life that Sandra lives, constantly worrying about her family’s survival, about her job, about paying the bills on time. Everything you need to know about Sandra’s life is in that posture – even more so than in her sad and empty look that shows us how little energy she has left, how ready she is to give up on her job – and on life in general.
This film is a great examination of corporate corruption and manipulation, herd mentality and peer pressure. It is also one of the most realistic portrayals of how the working class lives in capitalistic neoliberal system where workers have no rights whatsoever and can easily be replaced if they suffer from a prolonged illness. In accordance with capitalistic competitiveness and lack of solidarity, the corporate factory where Sandra works decides to pit the workers against each other instead of simply letting her go, forcing them to choose between their own self-interest and the empathy towards another human being. But even those whose vote isn’t instantly bought with the bonus money don’t make the decision lightly, since almost everyone’s first question when she approaches them is: “How is everyone else voting?”. Clearly afraid that they would be the only ones voting for her and therefore voting against everyone else’s interest, they can’t even begin to think about protesting against the inhumane and manipulative working environment. Each of them is too scared for their own job, because who knows who will be fired next?
Directed by: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Written by: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione
Running Time: 95 minutes