Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has returned to work at the factory after a bout of depression to discover that her position has been eliminated. Her boss, M. Dumont (Batiste Sornin), has found that he can manage with sixteen workers as well as with seventeen. To shift the blame off himself, he gives Sandra a chance to save her job. If she can convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses, he will have enough money to keep her on the payroll. A devilish proposition among people who have been short on funds their whole lives. Today is Friday; the vote will take place on Monday.
Sandra’s husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), understands without saying that Sandra must rise to this challenge, not only to save her paycheck, which the family needs, but to regain her will to live. Thin, with circles under her eyes and a perfunctory ponytail, Sandra wants nothing but to crawl into bed and pull the covers over her head. From moment to moment cajoled and encouraged by the tireless Manu, she does not hide her despair, her mortification at having to ask others to sacrifice for her, her dread of their resentment if she prevails and they lose the bonuses they have been counting on for home improvements, their kids’ education, the rent. Manu has much to put up with, but to the Dardennes’ credit the movie allows him a quiet heroism without heroics. The focus remains on Sandra’s plight.
For two days and (part of) one night, bolstered also by her righteous friend Juliette (Catherine Salée), Sandra makes the rounds of her co-workers’ homes, asking if they will vote for her to keep her job. The question poses a crisis, not just for Sandra, but for the others as well. Few are so heartless as not to feel the difficulty of her position; few have the luxury of giving up a bonus. A husband and wife, a father and son, argue bitterly over which way to turn. Immigrants confess their fear of getting on the wrong side of the boss who has engineered this farce. The final vote, however it turns out, will divide the workers, fracture their solidarity, as M. Dumont undoubtedly knows.
In her frail state, each “no” returns Sandra to despondency; each “yes” fills her with the gratitude only the desperate can feel. She is the sensitive instrument through which the Dardennes allow us to perceive a social injustice softened by acts of decency. Yet, to the Dardennes, as to the great humanists of French literature, Sandra is not merely an instrument. She is also a person who must decide whether to exist—not just on the factory floor, but in the world.