By Simon Miraudo
June 10, 2014
Two Days, One Night is paced like a joke, but it plays like a prayer. Writer-directors the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, spend the movie repeating the setup over and over again. Marion Cotillard‘s Sandra, recovering from a nervous breakdown, has a single weekend to convince each of her sixteen co-workers to turn down their bonuses so she won’t get the sack. One by one she approaches them, going through the same spiel, hoping they’ll acquiesce. Some don’t. Some do. All could really use that extra money. The punch line comes when the vote is taken Monday morning and her boss – responsible for this whole nonsense – delivers his final verdict. Calling it a ‘punch line’ implies it’s funny. It isn’t. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel it strike.
The plot may sound repetitive the way I’ve written it, so it’s a good thing the Dardennes aren’t spending their time adapting my reviews. Their own screenplays find relatable hooks in complex social issues with ease, and never make you feel the manipulation. Their camera strives for honesty at all times, barely ever cutting to reaction shots they can’t find in an effortless pan, or letting music from outside the feature’s reality bleed into the frame. (They toyed with a non-diegetic score, to great effect, in The Kid with the Bike; still, it’s not exactly needed or missed here.) To watch their loose-seeming yet immaculately crafted pictures is to be totally blind-sided by them, just as Sandra frequently is by the compassion of her kindest colleagues.
I described their last effort, 2011’s The Kid with the Bike, as “a powerful film about compassion and forgiveness, and the tragedy of not having the capability for either.” Same goes here. Though we only meet Sandra’s workmates in their individual, minutes-long vignettes, we get a glimpse into their troubled homes, learn of their financial hardships, and guess at their personal turmoil. The only ones in need of pity, however, are the ones who vote in favour of the bonuses. Sandra is sympathetic to those who refuse her, and so are the Dardennes, always insisting ultimate blame belongs to the industries taking advantage of their economically ravaged, lower class, often immigrant workers. But there is a right and there is a wrong in this situation, and no amount of justifying can change that.
For a flick that could have been delivered as a sermon on the mount, Two Days, One Night miraculously avoids being preachy. Cotillard’s performance deserves much of the credit for that. Playing a woman for whom even the fight to live is a struggle, let alone the fight to work, Cotillard’s Sandra starts uneasy and finds poise and purpose as the picture rolls along. In many ways, Two Days, One Night is a lot like Gravity, except for all the space.
Two Days, One Night plays the Sydney Film Festival June 10, 2014.