Over a long career, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have repeatedly demonstrated an affinity for characters on the fringes or lower rungs of society; characters without a safety net who are one short step away from oblivion. They’ve done it again with Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cotillard as a woman who has a single weekend to convince a majority of her coworkers not to vote her out of a job in favor keeping their bonuses.
Frequently working with amateur actors, deploying simple and straight forward cinematography and refusing to rely on a music score to shape their audiences emotions, the Dardennes achieve a naturalistic, subtle approach relying entirely on the drama inherent in the situations they choose without exaggeration or affectation. Their stories almost sneak up on you and their fundamental humanity. Though it’s the first time the Dardennes have worked with a major international movie star, Cotillard doesn’t change their essential working dynamic.
If you didn’t already know Cotillard was a star, you wouldn’t figure it out from watching her here. Deglamorized and completely restrained, it’s one of the talented actress’s more interesting performances. Her Sandra is constantly on the verge of a breakdown, but she refuses to let it show. Veering from disappointment, to hope and to joy always with an undercurrent of shame and embarrassment, each encounter shows a new side of her character.
The simple story sounds repetitive on paper, but somehow the narrative blossoms in constant variety. Each co-worker’s reaction is somewhat different than the one before so that you’re always kept guessing what’s going to happen next. Driving the story from beginning to end is the central drama over whether Sandra will get her job back or not. Along the way, the Dardennes paint a quiet portrait of the plight of the working class. Forced by their employers to choose between a bonus they need and a co-worker many of them consider a friend, the responses run the gamut from pure self-interest to almost saintly sacrifice. There’s one particularly moving scene where one of her co-workers breaks down in tears with guilt for originally voting against Sandra. It’s a warm, human moment that gives you hope Sandra will succeed in the end.
I won’t reveal how the story turns out, but it feels right and satisfying. What’s more important than whether or not Sandra succeeds is the sense that she’s changed as a human being. The fight she’s been forced into has given her a level of control over her life perhaps for the first time. Adversity in this case has indeed left her stronger and better able perhaps to handle the next inevitable challenge.