by Ken B.
Marion Cotillard is one of the best actresses working right now. Even when the script she is given is less than ideal, as seen in cases like La Vie en rose and The Immigrant, her performances are consistently fantastic. But when the rest of the movie is as good as she is, watch out. Two Days, One Night is an exemplary film, thematically rich but stylistically minimal. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, it is a gut wrenching show of emotion and desperation, thrown over a thesis of subtle politics, without attempts to barnstorm a particular argument. It works, but does so in a specific and non-showy way, eschewing grandeur that would have proven inappropriate in favor of natural dramatic worldbuilding.
Cotillard portrays Sandra, a middle-class working mother in the industrial Liège, Belgium. She is married to Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), who works as a chef at a small restaurant. They have two young children. Due to a series of recent mental health issues, Sandra has taken a leave of absence from her job at a solar panel factory. Upon her return, it has discovered that by slightly extending the shifts of the company’s current employees, Sandra could be rendered entirely redundant. Her boss, Mr. Dumont (Batiste Sornin), decides to let the workers decide on whether to allow Sandra back into her old position, or accept a €1,000 bonus each, which would result in her complete dismissal from the company.
An initial vote, spoilt by scare tactics spread by supervisor Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), returned a 14-2 decision in favor of the raise. Sandra convinces Dumont to hold a second ballot on Monday morning. She now has one weekend – two days and one night, to be precise – to visit the homes of her co-workers and convince at least nine of them to vote in favor of her. Her family can’t stay afloat on Manu’s salary alone, but in her quest, she finds that many of her colleagues genuinely need the extra money. As the hours tick by, her desperation grows, and the question of her employment remains very much up in the air.
At first, it feels as if Two Days, One Night will be a repetitive 95 minutes – Sandra goes from co-worker to co-worker, having a discussion of varying length and outcome, but always brushing over the same subject. However, as you watch the film, you realize how good the Dardennes are at the slow building of tension – visible in an aspect both providing further intensity and realism, as our protagonist travels to the residences of her associates, rings the doorbell, and often has to make another trip when told by the relative answering the door that the person she’s looking for isn’t home at the moment, but rather at a café, or coaching soccer, or something like that. By the time a set of cataclysmic third-act developments roll around, you’re all but on the edge of your seat. And this is all coming from a picture that lacks an artificial score or any flashy visual tricks, once again proving the point that any movie can be exciting if the direction is good, the writing is sound, and the acting is convincing. All three of those characteristics are present here.
From the intricacies of raw and unshielded performances to the actual screenwriting done by the Dardennes, Two Days, One Night ponders some interesting questions of morality and human behavior. When someone tells Sandra that they won’t vote for her, at times they can be incredibly blunt – “I need the money,” they’ll say, as a non-negotiable matter of fact. Is this an example of selfishness or clear socioeconomic prioritizing? The movie lets us ponder that question, and as a result, an individualistic impression of the story is generated from each viewer’s ideology, but without the irritating vagueness that accompanies other attempts at this method of open-ended interpretation.
By choosing not to present a desolate, one-sided plot, Two Days, One Night reveals itself as a complicated and three-dimensional portrayal of such a radical ultimatum, which, while unlikely to happen in real life, is presented with just enough immediacy and believability that it fits snugly as a hypothetical possibility in a fluctuating economy. Weighed around rock-solid work from Marion Cotillard, held up with inspired supporting actors, and locked in with directorial labor fully in-sync with the onscreen talent, Two Days, One Night’s rigorous and occasionally provocative filmmaking is professionally accomplished sans bombast or narrative squealing, leaving a strong mark through quiet, yet interminable horrors within.