Alibi V.24 No.6 • Feb 5-11, 2015 

Film Review

Two Days, One Night

Simple, working-class story about job security delivers Oscar-worthy drama

“Zut alors! Even our ice cream sucks.”
“Zut alors! Even our ice cream sucks.”

Two Days, One Night

Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione

It’s often a surprise, when Oscar nominations come out, to spot a film or two you’ve never heard of. Occasionally, these smaller, lower budget films go unreleased in America until their Academy Award attention gives them a boost, sending movie lovers scrambling to find and watch them before the Oscar telecast. This year Marion Cotillard’s Best Actress in a Lead Role nomination was among the more obscure. It’s for a tiny Belgian film called Two Days, One Night. And starting this weekend, you can actually watch it.

The film is the work of the Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc). Though they’ve been in the business since the ’70s, initially as respected documentarians, the Dardenne boys have made a name for themselves in the last couple decades thanks to their gritty, working-class dramas (1996’s La Promesse, 1999’s Rosetta, 2002’s The Son, 2005’s L’enfant, 2011’s The Kid with a Bike). Their latest is a deceptively simple tale of job security angst featuring a rich central performance by the ever-reliable Ms. Cotillard (Pretty Things, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, La Vie en Rose, Rust and Bone).

The plot here is little more than a sliver. Cotillard is Sandra, a wife and mother of two who works at a solar panel manufacturing firm to help make ends meet. As the film begins, Sandra is at the end of her rope. Her employer is struggling financially and has presented its small group of employees with something of a Sophie’s Choice. They can keep their annual bonuses and fire Sandra—or retain Sandra and lose their bonuses. Not too surprisingly, the majority of employees have chosen to look out for number one and keep their money. Determined to stay off government assistance—and believing some may have cast their votes under pressure—Sandra talks her boss into allowing a re-vote. This gives Sandra one short weekend to track down her fellow employees and convince them to change their vote.

This task is greatly complicated by the fact that Sandra is suffering from crippling depression. She can barely pop enough pills to get out of bed in the morning, and it’s hinted that Sandra’s mental health probably contributed to a recent “medical leave.” In fact, as this information comes to us viewers, we may even wonder if she’s up to performing her job. But the bottom line is her family is broke. She and her husband (longtime Dardenne lead Fabrizio Rongione) are working multiple jobs just to pay rent. Sandra can’t lose this job. So she chokes down her tears and heads out on the streets trying to sway some votes. That spread over the titular timeframe is just about all the story Two Days, One Night offers. And yet it gives us more human drama than most films 10 times its size.

As always, the Dardenne brothers have a keen understanding of those living paycheck to paycheck on the knife-edge of poverty. For all its social consciousness, however, the film never becomes a lecture about class struggle. Nobody here has time to discuss politics or economic policies. They’re just trying to pay bills, raise kids, get dinner on the table and maybe kiss their spouses before bedtime.

As Sandra goes about her task—alternately desperate, despondent and resolute—the film works some subtle magic. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Sandra gets better, stronger and more confident in her purpose. And her quest, fruitless as it might seem at times, has a microcosmic effect on the people she’s meeting with. Whether they agree to vote for her or not, they’re forced to reevaluate and justify their ethics.

Cotillard is, of course, fantastic. Her character’s mood swings are mapped thoughtfully and realistically. Two Days, One Night isn’t a movie about mental illness. But it is sympathetic to those who suffer with a form of mental illness. Clearly, our heroine has not fully recovered from her deep, clinical depression. She’s gotten relatively good at hiding it from others; but in the quiet moments, when no one else is around, she devolves into a sobbing mess. The sympathy the script has for its main character is extended to just about everyone else in the cast. There are no villains here—just people doing their level best to go about their lives.

As Sandra makes her way (by car, bus and foot) around the less picturesque parts of Liège, she encounters a lot of people an awful lot like herself. Some of her coworkers are guilty for voting her out. Some are perfectly sanguine with it. Others are angry. Or unsure. Or scared. The fact is this bonus money (1,500 euros) is a big deal to these folks. For some it means the difference between paying rent and losing a home. Just about all of them understand why Sandra losing her job is a terrible, scary thing. But can even the most empathetic among them give up a make-or-break windfall to help her out?

There are moments when Two Days, One Night plays out like a ticking-clock thriller. Only instead of diffusing a bomb, our heroine is fighting off unemployment. As always, the Dardenne brothers have a keen understanding of those living paycheck to paycheck on the knife-edge of poverty. For all its social consciousness, however, the film never becomes a lecture about class struggle. Nobody here has time to discuss politics or economic policies. They’re just trying to pay bills, raise kids, get dinner on the table and maybe kiss their spouses before bedtime.

For all the timely economic doom and gloom this film seems to bring up, the Dardennes remain firm believers in the human spirit. There’s an amazing solidarity and sense of community on display here. Though Two Days, One Night isn’t a happy-go-lucky film in any sense, it’s not a depressing one either. Unromantic as they are, the Dardennes aren’t going to give us some easy, deus ex machina solution. And yet, the pitch-perfect ending feels real and earned and perfectly fitted to all that has gone before. It is—to coin a phrase—good, honest work.