In a year full of truly great films of all sizes & shapes, only the Dardenne brothers could make such a subtle and slight film that still manages to make all other releases seem completely insignificant to me. Once again they tell a small, emotional and naturalistic story whose themes and situations manage to be as universal as they are singular. The effect the film has is slow but powerful. I walked out of the theater thoroughly loving what I had just seen – and a bit speechless – but on the ride home it hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t want to get too personal – but I suffer from depression and the emotional weight on the shoulders of the film’s main character so perfectly mirrored those I have felt that to even think about some of her smaller personal moments takes my breath away, and leaves a pit in my stomach. And yet, I can’t help but look back on the film with a smile. It is beautiful and honest in ways very few are.
It stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a married mother or two who is on leave from work because of a battle with clinical depression. She was just beginning to recover but is on the verge of relapsing when she learns that her coworkers were forced to vote on whether they wanted to receive a year end bonus – but only if Sandra was fired. They chose the money – and so Sandra must spend the weekend visiting each of them to try to convince them to change their minds when they vote a second time on the upcoming Monday. Each end up having their own reasons for wanting the money – and the encounters often end in tears, rejection and in once instance violence. But Sandra must do it – for bother her family and herself.
The result is a portrait of a woman facing seemingly insurmountable emotional, moral and social odds – a humanistic view of all things good and bad about human nature; and an examination of the devastating affect of depression. Its structure covers greed, love, survival, regret, self worth – and a whole multitude of other themes. There is also a current of economic commentary on the wealth gap and struggles of the working class. In other words – it is the Dardenne brothers doing what they do best – in what is perhaps their best work.
The core of the film is Marion Cotillard who gives what I think is far and away the best performance of the year. She is a magnificent actress and brings great physicality to the role. Her head hangs. Her arms and shoulders are pulled in tight – closing herself off to the world – and her eyes are always on the verge of tears. She perfectly emulates the apathy, anxiety and sadness her illness inflicts – and it is equal parts mesmerizing and excruciating watching her have to face her family, co-workers and herself through it all; something that I know from experience is very hard to do.
The ending is incredibly beautiful and down right perfect in my eyes. After such a long journey that ran the gauntlet of emotions and themes, it all circles back and ends looking inwards – as it should. This isn’t just one woman’s struggle to save her job, but also one to save herself – an attempt to rediscover the person her depression has refused to allow her to be. It is hopeful in ways those who have not suffered from depression might not quite understand. It ultimately didn’t matter what the result of the vote was, the fact that she was able to keep fighting – that she was able to find moments of pure happiness amongst it all – was what touched me most. More importantly, the fact that she spends the whole film questioning her worth – whether she even deserves to exist – and was able to make the final decision her own meant so much to me. Depression doesn’t just go away and Sandra may never truly get “better”…but that she was able to walk away with a smile – instead of fighting back tears – was a glimmer of hope that she (we all) will, even if just a little bit.
Looking at the few films from 2014 I still want to see, I think I can safely say this is my favorite from last year. Why? Aside from everything I mentioned above, this is perhaps the only film in which after it settled in I didn’t sit there wondering where on my top ten list it would appear – I just knew. That is how much it meant to me.