The Dardenne Brothers and Marion Cotillard produce a majestically simple story about struggling, sacrificing and surviving.
When Americans were asked by pollsters to come up with the most boring headline imaginable they reputedly plumped for “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” If you did a similar poll of Europeans only this time asking about descriptions of films, then “worthwhile Belgium film about post-industrial poverty and mental illness” might well be a contender. Yet in the hands of writer-director duo the Dardenne brothers it becomes captivating.
The film tells the story of a woman named Sandra who following a battle with depression is preparing to return to work but the Friday beforehand is told that she will lose her job unless by Monday she can persuade a majority of her colleagues to forgo their annual bonus.
Much of its success is down to Marion Cotillard’s performance as Sandra. Even for an accomplished (and Oscar winning) performer it’s a role that demands a lot. For starters, her face is on screen in close up for the majority of the film’s running time. And Sandra’s personality and condition as well as the Dardenne’s ultra-realistic style demand that she is generally rather subdued. So Cotillard has to carry the audience through more or less the whole film while only being able to convey thoughts and feeling in only the subtlest of ways. And she does it and then some. It’s all the more impressive because it’s not the kind of role she’s known for (in the English speaking world at least) – Sandra is a long, long way from Talia Al-Ghul!
However, it’s not a performance that exists in isolation. It can only exist because the Dardenne’s can make films in which their filmmaking apparently disappears. Let me just present one detail to show how impressively constructed it is: Sandra is always drinking bottled water. This is partly a matter of necessity because she uses it to take her Xanax tablets. But the ritual of drinking it also seems to be calming for her. It was only on the way back from the cinema that it occurred to me that of course it would: if you associate bottled water with Xanax then that would condition you to find the water calming. For me that captured the level of thought and care necessary to make a film that feels so much like watching real people.
Verdict: 9/10 – a seriously smart and engaging film