It’s rare that the weakest of female characters makes such a strong on-screen presence as Marion Cotillard’s Sandra in the Dardennes’ latest film. Earlier this year, in James Gray’s The Immigrant, Cotillard performed as another beaten-down woman seeking a sense of purpose. Neither film necessarily offers a most uplifting story about women, but there’s a certain perceived assertiveness to the actress’s embodiment of those characters. In this unsentimental tale of solidarity and self-worth, the lead star glibly switches between desperation and shame, timidity and fortitude.
The conceit is that, under a time constraint, Sandra carries out a door-to-door canvass to keep her job, which will cost her colleagues a bonus. It’s a streamlined narrative, but that doesn’t mean the conflict is a clear-cut me-against-them sort. While the film borrows its dynamism mostly from Sandra’s varying responses after pleading either on the phone or on the doorstep, what really infuses it with potent humanism are the diverse personalities and circumstances the co-workers contribute. During her first call, we only see Sandra reacting to what is being said on the other end of the line. Framed in a seemingly disinterested medium shot, Cotillard manages to channel reluctance and mortification her alter-ego feels without making overt gestures. From then on the directors incrementally increase the other employees’ visibility, pitting Sandra against not some vaguely defined enemy but fleshed-out humans. With the help of the brothers’ exactingly-timed cuts and nuanced shifts in camera distance, as well as the actress’s keen instinct for drama, Sandra’s emotional displays are well modulated. The negotiations largely occur in lengthy, distant two-shots, but the Dardennes allows for close-ups when refusal hits her hard, or when an affirmation puts a smile on her face.
With heartless (and almost faceless) corporate types pushed to the margins—literally, in the opening and close—of the story, the film’s politics aren’t so thickly veiled, but its social engagement feels modest without pompousness. It’s not only one of the year’s best, but it has the best performance of the year.