It’s over 25 years now that the Dardenne brothers have been making feature films, longer still documentaries, and I think it’s become obvious now that these two filmmaking modes have blended together somewhat in their output. There’s a fastidious, almost real-time focus on the ways events unfold in people’s lives, of the cascading impact of sometimes small events on a wide circle of people within a community (a family, a company, a town). So in many respects this latest film of theirs won’t seem a surprise or a departure for those who’ve already immersed themselves in their fictions, but it’s every bit as well-crafted as the others and packs a resonant emotional charge in this time of downsized jobs and recession-era austerity.
At the film’s heart is Marion Cotillard as Sandra, hair pulled back and moving as intently and constantly as Rosetta did in their 1999 breakthrough film of that name. Sandra has been away from work for an unspecified period, battling depression, but now returns to find she no longer has a job: it’s been bartered away by her managers in exchange for a one-off bonus payment to the rest of the staff. It quickly becomes evident in conversation with one of her few friends left at the company, that in order to save her job she must contact each of these employees and ask them to vote against their bonuses. This, then, is the form the film takes: a series of encounters with her co-workers over a weekend, broken up by occasional time at home with her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and children.
It’s an unenviable position, not particularly helped by the apparent lack of any unionisation at her workplace. The manipulative games of her (mostly unseen) line manager Jean-Marc seem to thwart her at every turn, as every positive gain seems to be countered by some hidden aggression. But it’s a film which paints a small-town world of people struggling to make ends meet that manages to avoid demonising any of them, her manager (and a co-worker’s abusive husband) aside: they each have their reasons, and it’s difficult even for Sandra to always reason against them.
Still, it gives her squeezed-middle-class character an insight into the lives of her co-workers and us an idea of the character of her community. The struggle on which she is embarked also seems, in an odd way, to pull her through the vestiges of her depression, which understandably flares up from time to time. Cotillard is in fine form, as are the Dardennes, and there’s a compassion at the film’s heart that makes some of its repetitiveness (necessitated somewhat by its structure) easier to take, with her final decision both heartbreaking and yet poignantly filled with hope.
Directors/Writers Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne; Cinematographer Alain Marcoen; Starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 14 September 2014.