Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne (2014)
This excellent film from the oft-celebrated Dardenne brothers sets up a Faustian bargain, a “Sophie’s Choice”, if you will, among a group of sixteen co-workers in a Belgian solar company, who have to decide via a secret ballot vote whether or not to allow their wayward, depressed co-worker Sandra to be fired (and thereby each collect their €1,000 bonus) or to forgo their bonus and let Sandra rejoin them on the job. The film is told completely from Sandra’s standpoint as she canvasses her co-workers during a hot summer weekend in their mid-sized Belgian town in advance of a Monday morning vote. The tension is ratcheted up with each interaction, as it becomes clear that for Sandra, this vote is quite literally a life or death decision.
The dynamics of how each of the 16 explains in person or on the phone to Sandra whether or not they’ll support her are representative of the many vagaries of human compassion. They range from unequivocal support and tears of guilt to out-and-out physical hostility, and every emotion in between. People clearly don’t want to make stark choices between their own financial well-being and the well-being of another, and when pressed, they each react in unique and illuminating ways. These are working-class people, each barely scraping by themselves but also, in most cases, exceptionally understanding of how tenuous having or not having a place to go to work every day can be.
Sandra herself complicates matters greatly. Played by Marion Cotillard in a role that never has her off-camera for even a moment, she wanders through much of the film in an anti-anxiety medicated haze. She seems well-liked by some in the film, and barely tolerated by others. She’s just come off a leave of absence for depression, and is only moderately attentive to her obviously long-suffering husband and children. She has delusions during the weekend that her marriage is about to fail, and at one point upends an entire box of Xanax into her mouth in an attempt to end the suspense of whether or not she’ll keep her job.
I did find it a bit strange that the loss of employment was played for such immense pathos. I mean, people do lose jobs and go on the dole in Europe and elsewhere all the time. We learn early that the largest consequence is that Sandra’s family might have to “live in social housing” as a result, which is more than unfortunate, but perhaps not quite worthy of a suicide attempt. It frankly comes as a surprise. No establishment of why Sandra’s job is so immensely important to her sense of self is made, and so her desperation to keep it seems both sensical and farcical at the same time.
The film is otherwise note-perfect, from the typical Dardenne jittery handheld camera work that establishes a gritty, realistic feel to Cotillard herself, who deserves every last bit of praise she received for her quote-unquote star turn in this one.