The Dardenne brothers are back, and their latest festival entry is only partly effective. The major change from what we’ve come to expect from them is having an international star, Marion Cotillard, as the lead in their film.
The story is simple, even schematic. Cotillard plays Sandra, a worker in a small factory in Seraing, an industrial suburb in Belgium. With her husband, and two small children, the family is struggling to maintain an orderly life with both parents working. Sandra’s job is essential for that, and the story opens with her in a desperate state because she is likely to lose it. After an absence due to chronic depression, she had been targeted for termination because the company needs to lay off one worker. The other workers were given a choice: they could save her job if they gave up their bonus. Sandra lost the vote, but it is found that management rigged the result by suggesting that others would be fired if Sandra won. When this is discovered on Friday, the boss agrees to another vote Monday morning. The film is the story of Sandra’s efforts – over the time span of the title – to convince the others to give up their bonus to save her job.
I won’t tell you the result, but the ending satisfies the premise of the Dardennes’ philosophy: that people are basically good, but their natural sense of cooperation and mutual support is blocked by the dominance of an anti-human economic system. While Cotillard provides the artistry we’ve come to expect from her, the Dardenne formula is strained here. The story is driven by the “High Noon” plot device of Sandra confronting her colleagues to plead her case. She’s got one weekend, and that’s it. But this seems a pretty artificial device. Is Sandra left with no other choices for support? In the real world, there are institutions that buffer the power of business owners. In this country, the press, the local politician, the church and, more significantly than ever, the social media, are called upon to cast a harsh light on this kind of abuse. I was waiting for Sandra to take stock of her real situation and contact the power groups who could really help her, but that never came.
Perhaps I’m missing the European perspective on this. America has long relied on cultural and social groups to fight the excesses of the marketplace. In fact, we expect to hear about people like Sandra every day, and have even become a bit cynical about it. Sandra could be trying to publicly embarrass her boss to get a promotion, or get evidence for a future lawsuit. But in Europe, where civic virtue is deeply embedded in the culture, working class people take a personal responsibility for each other. Every one of Sandra’s colleagues – whether voting for her or not – displayed great distress at her predicament, and felt so personally involved that their choice was likely to be a significant event in their lives, one they would never forget.
From that perspective, European audiences might view the film as very realistic. The other workers seem to be average, decent people who are responding on a human level. To me, those scenes blended into each other. The actors were believable enough, but the characters were mere sketches of various types, with each getting a few minutes to face a desperate woman and either show their support, or else try to justify kissing her off. Pretty good as far as political pageants go, but dramatically contrived and threadbare.