The relentless news about the brutalizing effects of the world economy on the working class gets a human face in “Two Days, One Night,” the latest film from Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.
Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, recently recovered from a bout of depression that required her to take a leave from her job at a small solar-panel factory. Upon returning, she finds out that she has been let go following a vote instigated by the foreman in which her 16 co-workers were given the choice of reinstating Sandra or receiving a €1,000 bonus.
This news is enough to send Sandra back into a depression, but her doting husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and her friend Juliette (Catherine Salée) urge her to fight back. The firm’s manager agrees to revisit the vote in a silent ballot on Monday morning, leaving Sandra two days and one night to locate her fellow employees and try to convince a majority of them to drop their bonuses.
At this point you might think that Sandra, by essentially going door to door and making her case, will turn into a martyr – or even worse, a bore. But here’s where the film veers most startlingly (and refreshingly) off course. Sandra does not plead strenuously for her own straitened circumstances – her two children, her husband’s low wages as a cook, the prospect of going on welfare. That’s pretty much a given in her world. Instead, she attempts to appeal to the other employees on the level of basic human fairness. Her pitch to each of these people is roughly the same, and we can see how the repetitiveness wears her down. And yet Sandra needs to press forward; she only has the weekend. (In its own Euro art-house way, the movie is a real nail-biter.)
What’s even more refreshing about this scenario is that the Dardennes don’t demonize the other employees, most of whom are in the same tenuous financial circumstances as Sandra and her family. In a series of deft vignettes, the Dardennes offer up a microcosm of an entire working-class contingent, and each vignette is a universe all to itself.
In one of the most piercing moments, Anne (Christelle Cornil), fearing her husband’s response, lets it be known that she wants to help but just can’t. Her eyes tell you there is a great deal more that she wishes she could say. (And, in one of the film’s more satisfying developments, eventually she does.)
There is also the scene in which Sandra meets up with a young father (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) coaching a soccer match and reminds him that he, an immigrant, was once helped by her on the job. His tearful response is the film’s clearest evocation of the humanity welling inside even the direst of circumstances. It’s like a scene out of a vintage Jean Renoir movie.
But none of this would work if Cotillard’s performance weren’t so forthright and deeply felt. We can see how Sandra is afraid of slipping back into a black funk even as she presses forward. (It’s a boon, perhaps too convenient, that her husband is such an all-around good guy.) Sandra doesn’t play for pity with her co-workers – not only out of a sense of pride but also because she truly does understand their concerns. She may even wonder what she would do if the situation were reversed.
Cotillard looks resolutely unglamorous in this film, and yet she comes across as a heroine. Sandra’s mettle, almost imperceptibly, strengthens. The Dardennes specialize in loosely framed, naturalistic-looking dreariness, but in this film their faux realism works because Cotillard gives the blahness a depth charge. She is one of the few high-profile actors they have worked with, but the glory of her performance is that she never turns it into a star turn – which makes her all the more a star. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements.)