Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne have made the best film of the Cannes Film Fest so far, Two Days, One Night. With this suspenseful saga of a woman on the verge of losing her job, the Dardennes highlight the economic crisis framed within the context of human nature. Not since the Twilight Zone has human behavior been laid so bare, with our best and worst instincts examined under crisis. What would you do if you had the choice between a hefty bonus and one of your co-workers losing her job? Do you need the money enough to sell someone down the river? Or do you value your own integrity, no matter what the cost.
That is the dynamic at play with this exceptional film. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a wife and mother of two who is one lost job away from losing the mortgage on her house and going on welfare. Despite her resistance to “looking like beggar,” her ongoing battles with depression and dependence upon anti-anxiety drugs, Cotillard’s Sandra decides to muster up what fight in her she has left to speak to her co-workers, one agonizing visit after another.
Each time Sandra speaks to the people she’s worked with, some for years, some for a short time, more of their character is revealed, and in some cases, their own desperate economic straights become clear. This isn’t easy an easy decision for anyone living barely on the edge, and $1,000 euros (something like 1300 dollars) would do many of these working class families a world of good. And yet, to get this financial boost would mean making a hard choice. That choice comes down to whether they are wiling to look out for their fellow co-worker, or whether they put the interests of their own family first.
Sandra is barely holding as it is and she’s close to giving up. But her husband pushes her to follow through. What do they have to lose? Everything, Sandra argues. How will her co-workers treat her once they see she’s convinced them to give up their bonuses?
The story unfolds deliberately, slowly, carefully, effortlessly – exhibiting nothing short of masterful filmmaking and storytelling of the kind we rarely see anymore in any film, but especially so in American film. Imagine our filmmakers making a movie where a woman is fighting for her job. A woman! It would be recast as a man, for starters, and there would be murder attempts, bank robberies, etc. But the Dardennes achieve the same level of suspense without adding any ludicrous plot points. The good and bad that resides in each person, to whom do they choose to listen and why, are far more moving, far more powerful questions.
By continuing to work in French cinema, Cotillard is preserving her versatility and her clout as a leading actress. After all, who is ever going to give her a lead in an American film? These roles are few and far between in the American system, but in France or Belgium? Here you have filmmakers who are highly respected in their own countries and here at the film festival writing an entire film around a female character.
As Sandra, Cotillard never loses sight of what is at stake. Her emotions are always being swallowed, like the anti-anxiety pills and water she drinks. The camera rarely leaves her face, never cutting away from her, not even for a second. To this end, it is reminiscent of Hitchcock, particularly the first hour of Psycho, where we watch Marion carry out her mundane duties. Cotillard lets us in but also occasionally surprises us with what ultimately comes out of her mouth. It is a brilliant, fully realized performance, this “heroine for all time.”
Watching the interior struggle of Sandra is a reminder that women don’t have to always be defined by “women’s issues.” They are half the participating members of society. If you don’t value them, as American films repeatedly fail to do, you are simply not telling any kind of truth. Moreover, you are helping to raise whole generations of young Americans who don’t value women either. Here, the Dardennes simply told an important story. That the lead happened to be female was beside the point.
Two Days, One Night is the kind of film that can make you see the world, and your place in it, differently. Maybe you help someone off with their coat who’s sitting next to you. Maybe you let someone go in front of you in line at the market. These are small things that add up to big things. Desperate times often call for desperate measures. When people are losing their jobs and struggling to survive they often need someone to blame. Nazi Germany in the 1930s is the extreme example of what can happen when you must look out only for your own skin.
Sometimes you have a choice, other times you don’t. But the consequences of selling out your friend and co-workers often add up to more than tightening your belt for a few weeks. Of course, the film puts the ultimate blame squarely upon the higher-ups who are responsible — not just for punishing Sandra for her battle with depression, but also for pitting co-worker against co-worker.
Most unexpected and moving of all, though, is that Sandra becomes stronger throughout the course of the film. She is still fragile enough to break, no doubt, but the fight becomes about more than just her own job. It becomes about community and basic human kindness, something that is quickly abandoned when the money starts running out.
Storytelling at its absolute best, Two Days, One Night is the frontrunner to win the Palme d’Or as no other film in main competition is so complete. The Dardennes worked on this screenplay for ten years. That’s how tight the writing is. Though the Dardennes often manage to steal the show here at Cannes, here’s hoping the movie expands stateside so that American filmmakers might take a hard long look at what they’ve been contributing to the collective. It is doubtful that American audiences can ever be trusted again to come to the cinema en masse for a film like this. Such is the way of things now. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a reaching nonetheless, a shift towards the thing that makes film even worth making in the first place — to move people, quite simply, with the power of story.