Director: Luc & Jean Pierre Dardenne
Writer: Luc & Jean Pierre Dardenne
Cinematography: Alain Marcoen
by Jon Cvack
I love the Dardenne Brothers. They’ve pushed the boundaries of realism into such an incredible place, taking seemingly sporadic, handheld camera work into a deliberate and high brow art form. What seems random and improvised - and perhaps is, at points - upon further examination plays as extremely well timed and well rehearsed action.
This is the first time they’re using an international star as the central character, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who, at times, has an adverse effect. She is such a beautiful person, and so well known, that their hyper-realism style is chronically overshadowed by her presence. I just couldn’t believe her in the role. There are moments I do. But every so often I’m pulled back. She is just too beautiful for me to get immersed into the story. I simply saw her as a massive movie star who put on regular clothes and messed up her hair, which is funny because they said they were able to completely transform her. I just didn’t see it. Don’t get me wrong - the performance is amazing and the subject matter relevant. Yet the story falls a bit flat compared to their other films. For all the rave reviews and Netflix recommending the movie to me at 4.9/5 stars (this is very rare these days) I was hoping the film would meet, if not exceed their other films. Instead, for a duo committed to realism, their forfeiture of the central character from a commonly no-name 'every person' in favor of a superstar ended up sacrificing what makes their style so effective.
Sandra has been laid off in order to free up money to provide a bonus to the other sixteen or seventeen employees. The union is going to go with another vote to see if she can stay, at their expense (€1000), and she has convince her co-workers to cast in her favor. The whole process takes... two days and one night.
We get to meet a bunch of different lower/lower-middle class characters who have families. Some are supportive, others dismissive, a younger man is incredibly violent. Either they agree with recasting their vote, or they explain why they can’t - they have families, a single income, other bills to pay, all of the above, and so on and so forth. The characters are diverse, all struggling between what is right for them as individuals versus what is right for their families or the long term. All need the money. It’s just a matter of how desperately.
I kept waiting for more to happen. Given the realism, I wasn’t sure what exactly. It felt like each scene was a simple coin toss. Either they’d vote in her favor or not. It wasn’t easy for most. With the exception of a few, no one got too upset, or too supportive. I suppose some would say that high tension is reserved for Hollywood films, but I’d beg the differ. The Dardenne Brothers have a unique ability to make the ordinary into the extraordinary. They can take a seemingly simple and insignificant situation and create vast amounts of tension and conflict. Unfortunately, this movie seemed like it leveled off after Sandra’s first visit.
By the end, I wasn’t really sure what to take. The votes are split down the middle. She does not get to keep the job. HR then takes her into the office, admiring her commitment, and offers her the position by failing to extend another worker’s contract. Sandra won’t have it. Even though the worker will probably get let go regardless, even after she attempted suicide by overdosing on Xanax, she won’t accept the job under such conditions. And that’s where I’m most confused. Because this is pure Hollywood. It was too tidy. Too clean. What if instead she took the job? Or what if she didn’t provide an answer, went back to her apartment and took another Xanax, finding the choice incredibly difficult, finally mustering up the courage to say no? All of these seem to be far more realistic endings. The film isn’t bad. I was just hoping for so much more.
BELOW: The opening scene, giving a decent taste of the Dardenne style
Thoughts on films, old and new
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