Yes, there are some red-blooded American moviegoers who absolutely refuse to mess with subtitles. In a way, I can’t blame them. It’s distracting to be trying to read the English printed at the bottom of the screen while you’re trying to watch the movie at the same time. And if you happen to not have much familiarity with the language being spoken by the characters (in this case French), you miss a lot of nuance (when they switch between informal and formal second person endings, for instance). But if you choose to skip this one, dear readers, you’re going to miss a gem.
Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a Belgian factory worker at a small plant where they make solar panels. Sandra is blessed with a caring husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and two lovely children. She’s obviously an attractive woman, but she seems depressed and distracted. Soon we learn that she is just emerging from a hospitalization for clinical depression. She took a leave of absence from her job and was “on the dole” for a while. True, there are folks who, once they start receiving disability from the government, are happily not in a hurry to get off the dole. But now that Sandra is out of the hospital, her benefits are ending and she is eager to return to work.
The problem is that factory had to fill her place in her absence. They hired a temporary “contract” worker (an African immigrant), and then, just as Sandra was planning to return to reclaim her job, she learns that the owner has decreed that the money they would have paid for her salary can instead be distributed among the other workers as a bonus, 1000 Euros each. All but three of the 16 line workers voted, with the encouragement of their foreman, to receive the bonus instead of re-instating Sandra. Only one of her co-workers actually tries to help her, by corralling the owner just as he’s leaving on Friday afternoon and extracting from him a promise that another vote would be taken on Monday morning, this time by secret ballot. Majority rules.
Now Sandra is faced with the unenviable task of visiting the homes of each of her 16 co-workers over the weekend, begging each of them to forsake their bonus and instead vote for her re-instatement. She hates doing it. In fact, she’s so ambivalent about it that she frequently dissolves into crying jags (which she tries to fix with more Xanax) or withdraws to her bed, much to the consternation of her husband, Manu, who’s been trying to hold the family together but needs Sandra to pull her weight again, both economically and emotionally. He’s desperately trying to get her not to just “check out” of her responsibilities, so he comforts, he cajoles, he encourages, he counters her objections –but he won’t lie to her. When she accuses him of descending more into pity than love for her, he doesn’t deny it. He can only assure her that he is still here.
Though Ms. Cotillard’s performance has received some much-deserved attention, what’s not being ballyhooed is the complex nature of the marital relationship presented here and how a couple in trouble tries so hard to resolve their issues and move forward. Though the “reality” format is without the usual Hollywood window dressing – no cut scenes, no sex, no nudity, no fast-forwarding, no glitz or glamour, no adrenalin-rush chase sequences, no breathtaking landscapes, no fancy costumes – we just can’t take our eyes off Marion Cotillard. And we find ourselves caring very much about her difficult quest for a spark of affirmation when she’s so tempted to succumb to the enveloping darkness.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.