With no bells, whistles or fanfare, the Dardenne brothers – Jean-Pierre and Luc – have been writing, producing and directing their own brand of Belgian naturalism since the ’90s. Before that they made documentaries. Ignored by the multiplexes, but loved by the critics, their modest, moving films sound eminently missable. Then you watch one...
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has a loving husband, Manu (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione), two happy kids, a house, a job, and crippling depression. There’s been a secret ballot at her work (a solar panel factory, where they manufacture a facsimile of the sunshine she lacks), forcing her colleagues to choose between keeping their bonuses, or her job. Sandra wants to give up, but Manu makes her visit each of her co-workers over the titular time period to make a case for clemency. “You’re letting yourself go,” he tells her, kindly, “react instead.”
Reluctantly, she sets out to speak to them, encountering false starts (some simply aren’t in), dignified indignation (“I didn’t vote against you,” one tells her, “I voted for my bonus.”) and the full spectrum of human emotions, all of them earned. To some it’s a practical issue – they need the money – to others it’s a moral one; either way, with Sandra in front of them it’s one that can’t be ignored.
As an ordinary woman on the edge, Cotillard is excellent, the camera rarely leaving her face as she cycles from deep despair to tiny triumphs. Although she takes almost an hour to crack a smile, we’re always invested in Sandra’s plight, and through glimpses of her colleagues’ differing home situations – many of which make hers look charmed – the film becomes more and more engrossing. There’s no music but what plays on the radio, and minimal camera movement. Just real-seeming people talking reasonably and a life, quietly, changed.
Belgium’s best-kept secrets are breaking through without selling out, and their unshowily inspiring domestic drama reminds us you don’t need to go to war – or prison – to earn redemption.