Sunday, November 16, 2014


Sandra is woken by the phone. She rises, rifles through her bag and answers. As soon as she says hello the oven starts nagging and then as she hears what we don't she struggles with the pastry she's been cooking and is getting increasingly upset. Hanging up, she rushes to the bathroom and snaps two tablets from a foil and washes them down. Her face in the mirror is panic. We don't quite know why but she seems to be taking things a little too hard.

A conversation with her husband and further dialogue throughout reveal that she has been voted out of her job because the boss said it was a big bonus or her. She's been away from work for a while and it's been found that 16 can do the work without her seventeenth. Why her? That's the pills. She is recovering from a deep depression and on the eve of her return to work she is being rejected by co-workers who value a short term gain more than her. Tough times.

Her husband recognises the teetering his wife is suffering and gently stirs her to action. If she can convince the boss to run another ballot and then nine of her workmates to vote for her she'll have a job. And so she does, one by one, approaching each with an increasingly fragile confidence to plead her case.

This is my first Dardenne brothers film. I've known about them from about Rosetta onwards but haven't pursued any of their work until now. I have nothing against their choice of stories from the poor and downtrodden of the world it's just that given the choice of the kitchen sink or some zappy concept-rich sci-fi ... Well, I'll eat that sentiment. Far from being the grimly worthy Belgian Ken Loach this film shows a plainer and lighter hand with none of the affectations I find irksome about Loach.

First thing I notice is that there is no score. The only music we hear is from the scenes where there are music players. Only once does this line blur and then only very subtly at a rare moment of joy. Apart from that it's all atmos tracks and library sound. Marion Cotillard must carry the burden of this film alone. She does. Seldom has such disassembling vulnerability felt so intimidating from a cinema screen.

There is no time play of flash backwards or forwards; we begin at the start of the string and end where it runs out. We are going to follow her for the time in the title. The rest is up to us.

The visual style is deceptively plain. The streets and buildings Sandra walks through form a kind of geometric monkey puzzle which seems to keep her at a distance even before she encounters each coworker who might as easily refuse as agree to her plea. She is keeping herself aloof through medication but there is something in the shapes of the backgrounds that constrain her. One of the dingy apartments she must visit is accessed through a dirty green and claustrophobic stairwell. The car she travels in to her appointments with either triumph or disappointment is forced to become her home, however temporarily; its confines are a comfort rather than a constraint and she seems to wear it like a doona.

Each meeting with one of the people she hopes to convince contains a physical line between the two. Whether it's a crack in a wall, a fence or a door jamb it's there every single time. Even when the two move a few paces another line will be established to separate them. This does not feel like clever auteurism but plain function, letting us know that the filmmakers are keeping the visual side unambiguous, providing a sturdy setting for dialogue that carries a lot of weight, however unaffected it sounds.

I'm surprised to be compelled to call this film about the cold reality faced by the lower percentile of society elegant but there really is no better word for a piece that lays its issues so simply and delivers its punch with such effortless skill: this is an elegant film about suffering. The old saw about amateurs bringing attention to the difficulty of their work and professionals making it look easy applies here. If you can see the broken juggling plate in a Ken Loach film (I think he's a great filmmaker but at his worst he's a barking P.E. teacher) the Dardennes here at least will not let you spy the slightest falter.

No comments:

Post a Comment