Two Days, One Night

2014 - 95 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Written by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne, Simone Caudry, Catherine Salee

The desperation of a paycheck-to-paycheck (or no paycheck) existence is ripe for contrived melodrama, but in the capable hands of the Dardenne brothers it’s the starting point for incredibly pure study of humanity and principled dilemma. Blue-collar trappings of their native Belgium have, and continue to, inspire austere brilliance. Sparse suburban neighborhoods are the landscape and the Dardennes don’t typically clutter their production with trinkets like obtrusive scores or recognizable stars. The equation changes somewhat in Two Days, One Night, which brings Marion Cotillard into the stark Dardenne-verse as a downtrodden, working class, reluctant protagonist. The marriage of movie star and material couldn’t have worked any better.

A Friday afternoon phone call wakes a napping Sandra (Cotillard). Her job at a local factory is in serious jeopardy after management presented her co-workers with two options: save Sandra’s position or take home a €1,000 bonus. 14 of 16 opted for their bonuses. Factory ally Juliette (Catherine Salée), helps convince their boss to hold a second, anonymous vote the following Monday. Abusing her anxiety medication and emotionally wrecked, Sandra isn’t prepared to politick for her position. Encouraged by a devoted husband (Fabrizio Rongione), she uses the weekend to track down her co-workers and ask for their support.  

The ticking clock scenario adds immediacy to Sandra’s plight, though there’s no playing up of a rush against time to add superficial emergency to the odyssey. The monotonous countdown aspect of visits made and left to make isn’t felt either, even though the question is constantly asked and answered. The interactions are self-contained and serve the larger narrative of personal crisis and anxiety.

Confrontations range from quarrelsome, to ambivalence, to empathy, and even deep remorse for voting against Sandra the first time. The co-workers aren’t set up as villains to overcome; they’re people, many of them in tough situations that could be eased, at least temporarily, by a hefty bonus. Many of them tell Sandra they didn’t vote against her, they voted for their bonus. They also ask her, “Put yourself in my shoes.” The Dardennes are also asking that of us, and we can’t help but sympathize in a few of the more dire situations: newly single with kids, fear of their temporary work contract expiring, etc. Some aren’t as noble, like using the bonus to put a new deck on their house.

I couldn’t help but wonder how differently the viewing experience, and our emotions, would be if we followed one of the co-workers instead of Sandra. Of course we empathize with her because we see her struggle close-up. If we saw one of the single mothers struggling to get food on the table, how would we feel about this woman asking for her job to be saved, essentially worsening the strain? A woman, mind you, who’s been off work battling depression for an extended period, and whose job was proven to be redundant. It’s a tough question that doesn’t have an easy answer, though Sandra helps provide one near the end of the film that crystallizes our morally appropriate impulse.

Cotillard is brilliant in the lead role, mustering courage one moment and completely breaking down the next. Every emotion is felt and feels natural; confidence, relief, and frustration alternatively worn on her face and seen in her weighed-down walk. Any hint of glamor is gone, but this isn’t just a case of a beautiful actress getting a make-under to slum it in poverty porn. The performance and the film as a whole are much better than that.

Sandra is simultaneously determined and defeated, essentially fighting for her life, at least life as she knows it now. Sometimes there’s hope the future will be better; sometimes there’s little hope for any future at all. Even the briefest of respite is felt, like the joy of singing along with a song on the radio for a few minutes. The Dardennes beautifully capture several small moments that feel big.

There is a definitive resolution and decision made by Sandra’s co-workers, presented with little fanfare. The result is what the result is, but the real revelations are reached by going through the trials and tribulations on the journey. For Sandra, and for all of us working our way through life’s various meat grinders, that journey continues regardless of the outcome of a single conflict.

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