I’m going to start by saying two things I almost never say: this film could be longer, and I’d like to see an American remake. Okay, so I don’t think this particular film should be longer, one focused squarely on Sandra (Marion Cotillard) as she tries to convince enough of her co-workers to forego an offered bonus so that she won’t have to be laid off. But I imagine the American remake being set on the eve of such a vote and use interwoven narratives to establish how each of them approaches their decision. Thus I see a more epic version that would demand more time, even as this smaller runtime suits its narrower focus.
Even if it is narrow in character, it is still expansive in theme. Central is the notion of the divide and conquer mentality that modern, global capitalism has instilled. We might take the manager at his word that competitive pressure demands he cut costs either by reducing staff or by holding down wages. Still, putting this particular option to a vote pits the workers, all seemingly on the economic cusp*, against each other. Management uses both the stick and the carrot to create this effect, preventing the workers from exerting any collective force that might actually challenge their position. The stick creates fear for their own jobs while the carrot offers a small bonus and the potential for overtime. As Sandra says repeatedly, you can’t really blame those that would, under these conditions, cast her aside. She probably doesn’t help herself by continually buying into the framing that they would be losing their bonus instead of not getting it. The fact is they don’t have a bonus yet but she does have a job.
In a larger-scale film, we might see the economic concerns of each voter that would make the marginal increase vital. Make us really feel what they have on the line, since ethically there seems to be a clear argument to suffer a little to keep someone else from suffering a lot. Instead we generally get vague references to a child’s education. When we hear from one woman that she needs the bonus because she’s just moved out from her husband, we don’t get a satisfying comment on the way that economic constraints are something that often keep women in abusive relationships.
One of the great things about this personalized take on the situation is that it does a great job exploring how it interacts with Sandra’s depression, and how that is used against her and creates a Catch-22. They threaten to isolate her in part because of her illness, but her illness would be compounded by that isolation (not to mention the stress of this particular situation). It is a compelling example of how society can exacerbate rather than help those in need.
The main thing that makes me think this story needs to be told in America is that this is a European context of stronger unions and a stronger social safety net. Sandra makes her argument that she wants to be working, not on the dole, perhaps move into subsidized housing. It is captivating, but at least she has a dole as a fall back. In America, that fall-back is likely much more brutal.
***SPOILERS***Based on how things developed, I thought this was going to go toward a 12 Angry Men or 1776 conclusion, where ultimately she is able to isolate one individual and make them the swing vote. It is a lot harder to be the one person who fires her than part of a group that makes a decision to help themselves. Ultimately, the ending is kind of perfect in that it flips things around and singles Sandra out with a similar choice. Everything about how her character is built at that part makes her decision and reaction very believable.***END SPOILERS***
Even if I have visions of a grander film with higher stakes, I really liked this. A clear step up, in my mind, for the Dardenne’s whose films have always developed characters but not necessarily felt as controlled in building a plot arc.