The Dardenne brothers consistently make compelling dramas that win awards, from Rosetta (1999) to The Kid With a Bike (2011), and this drama might be their best yet. It takes a simple premise and twists it into a comment on the changing structure of global society, all while never losing the intensely personal perspective. It's never a statement film, but it says much more than movies that shout their messages loudly.
The central character is Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who has just returned to work after an emotional breakdown. Then she's left stunned when her boss (Baptiste Sornin) calls a vote on a Friday afternoon, and employees choose to make Sandra redundant so they can keep their €1,000 bonuses. Her friend Juliette (Catherine Salee) gets the boss to agree to re-run the vote on Monday by secret ballot, which gives Sandra the weekend to sway people to save her job, which she desperately needs to keep her family afloat. Her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) accompanies her on this degrading task, begging her colleagues one by one to give up their cash for her. And it's almost more than she can bear. For every thrilling surge of compassion she feels, there's another worker who coldly refuses her pleas.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne based the film on a real scenario, which is awful to imagine. Indeed, most of the film's characters express horror at the unfairness of the situation, but Sandra and Manu just have to get on with things in a matter-of-fact way that grounds the film in earthy emotion and, thankfully, wry humour. Cotillard gives another fully invested performances as a woman barely keeping a grip on herself, let alone finding the reserves needed to take care of her kids. She hides her true feelings from everyone as long as she can, and her main flaw seems to be an inability to see that she has a husband and colleagues who genuinely care about her. She's not facing this seemingly hopeless situation alone.
The film progresses through the weekend with an almost effortless pace, leading inexorably to that second vote on Monday morning. Nothing about the story or its themes is obvious, but as events develop this becomes one of the most pungent explorations of how corporate greed has actually changed the way neighbours interact. Through cycles of despair and joy, Sandra's journey is almost overpoweringly moving from a cinematic point of view, especially as suspense builds until the fiercely clever final scene. But the deeper issues the film is probing are what make it utterly essential.
Run time: 95 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 21st May 2014
Box Office Worldwide: $5.4M
Distributed by: IFC Films
Production compaines: Media Programme of the European Community, Les Films Du Fleuve, Archipel 35, BIM Distribuzione, Eyeworks, France 2 Cinéma, Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF), Belgacom, VOO, Vlaams Audiovisueel fonds, Euro-Images, Canal+, Ciné+, France Television
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Fresh: 55 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Starring: Marion Cotillard as Sandra, Fabrizio Rongione as Manu, Olivier Gourmet as Jean-Marc, Catherine Salée as Juliette, Christelle Cornil as Anne, Batiste Sornin as Monsieur Dumont, Pili Groyne as Estelle, Simon Caudry as Maxime, Alain Eloy as Willy