The Dardennes’ latest is a small-scale underdog story of epic humanity.
More than just modern-day neorealists, the Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are descendants of the legendary Robert Bresson. Their characters are often sent on personal journeys to search deep within themselves, forced to endure immense suffering in the hope of redemption. It’s this seamless blend of neorealism’s social concerns and Bresson’s spiritual concerns that elevate the Dardenne brothers beyond simple kitchen sink drama.
Against a working-class backdrop, the Dardennes tell the story of Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a wife and mother of two, who has just lost her job after returning from a leave of absence. It turns out her workmates have voted her out in favour of a 1,000 euro bonus. But, with the help of a supportive colleague, she is able to convince her boss to recast the ballot on Monday, giving her the weekend to visit her workmates and sway their favour. So begins Sandra’s mission, going door-to-door, testing the nature of people in a time of financial crisis. It’s a carefully crafted scenario designed for maximum narrative tension, taking us on a ride full of emotional suspense.
Despite the realism the Dardennes strive for, Two Days, One Night achieves the quality of a social parable or morality tale. The tagline for the film could be summed up as such: being good is hard when you’re broke. Yet her co-workers are never painted with broad strokes. They are real people with real concerns, struggling to reconcile themselves with their decisions of commerce versus community. When confronted by Sandra in person, they can no longer ignore the significance of their decision and what’s at stake for both parties.
As a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Marion Cotillard is convincingly stripped of her usual glamour, reimagining herself as Sandra. It’s a performance of remarkable intensity, situated somewhere between Jeon Do-yeon in Secret Sunshine and Michelle Williams from Wendy and Lucy. She is fragility incarnate, painfully relatable in her self-pity. The Dardennes suffocate us with her presence, tying every scene to her. The camera watches her ceaselessly, in their usual hand-held vérité style, observing her crumble under seemingly insurmountable pressure. She cannot escape herself and neither can we.
The remainder of the supporting cast is solid, existing solely for Cotillard to bounce off of. Fabrizio Rongione, playing Sandra’s husband, does well to offer hope and strength in contrast to Sandra’s defeatist attitude. All the numerous performers playing her co-workers are also appropriately utilised within their limited screen time, never coming across as phony or overacted.
Two Days, One Night manages to resolve itself with an ending that is both unexpected and absolutely pitch perfect. Though it may be their most overtly political film, the Dardennes never forget the heart of the film is in Sandra’s struggle, her strength and perseverance in spite of the odds. It’s a deceptively simple film that reinforces the importance of camaraderie and individuality in a time where people are reduced to numbers and figures, perfectly capturing the moment when the personal and political collide.