By Keith Allison
The long-time filmmaking duo of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne are known for chronicling the beauty and tension in simple human interactions, from “Rosetta” to “The Kid with a Bike.” Those expecting the same from “Two Days, One Night” will not be disappointed. The tight, 90-minute social drama about one woman’s attempt to fight for employment continues their streak of excellence in showcasing the vulnerability of those suffering in the working class.
At the center of it all is Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a wife and mother of two young children who suffers from bouts of depression. We join her shortly after she’s been laid off from her job in a solar panel factory, largely due to the company’s realization that it could work efficiently with one less employee. Her co-workers were given an ultimatum — take their salary bonus of 1000 euros or keep Sandra on, with all but two of her sixteen colleagues voting against her. Taking the chance to hold a recall vote, Sandra is given a weekend (the two days and one night of the title) to speak individually with each co-worker and change their minds on the bonus, in the hopes that she can maintain her family’s largest source of income.
A lot of credit must be paid to the directing pair for crafting a film with such wide-reaching sympathy. There are no crusaders here among the workers, only survivors. Few colleagues hold ill will to Sandra, but while some are remorseful enough to reconsider their initial votes, others are at end’s meet and desperate to support their own families. Sandra herself is embarrassed to be under the spotlight here, stressed about how desperate she seems to everyone and ready to fall back into a depressive state. The truth of the matter is that there is no black and white morality. The antagonists are not the people involved, but the coldness of business efficiency. With the Dardennes, it’s just a question of what the individual can live on — adherence to human decency or self-preservation? For that, they deserve praise.
That said, “Two Days, One Night” is unable to stand tall without Marion Cotillard at the center. In a film this unnerving, Sandra needs to hold our attention at all times. That requires an actress with an innate strength — someone who can be understood through the subtlest of gestures, who has a presence we are drawn to from first glance. Cotillard, as always, proves capable of this. As the film proceeds, we see the toll of Sandra’s journey weigh on her mental state, and Cotillard does an excellent job of projecting the weary fortitude necessary to make the character feel authentic. The few moments where Sandra smiles or expresses joy are enough to brighten the whole picture, and that drives us forward, invested and hopeful.
Striking in its humanity, “Two Days, One Night” is essential, if uncomfortable viewing. Truly, the Dardennes are at the top of their game.
Keith Allison is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.