'Two Days, One Night'
The Belgian Dardenne brothers have at this point refined their style of filmmaking down to something instantly distinct and recognizable. Always playing small and always shooting with handheld cameras, their films almost surpass what we think of as cinematic realism and feel like they could be documentaries. It says a great deal about their considerable skill as filmmakers that not even inserting an international star like Marion Cotillard into their fragile little world could disrupt their specific style.
It also says a great deal about Cotillard that she could slip into such a pained and real world and almost instantly make the audience forget her famous face. ‘Two Days, One Night’ is a delicate and tiny masterclass in realist filmmaking. It’s a project that only the Dardennes would dare to make, let alone pull off so well. It might not be the filmmakers’ best effort to date, but it’s certainly among their best.
Cotillard stars as a deeply depressed woman named Sandra who recently took an extended leave of absence from work. While she was away, her bosses discovered that the factory floor could work without her and offered all the other employees a choice: Either Sandra returns, or her old job disappears and everyone else gets a bonus. It’s a sick ultimatum, but one that’s all too real in the world of mundane middle management.
The first vote sees all but two of Sandra’s workmates vote for her dismissal. Desperately wanting to retain her job, Sandra strikes a deal for a re-vote following the weekend. That gives her 48 hours to confront each and every one of her co-workers, hoping to convince at least half of them to swing their votes her way. The Dardenne brothers contain their entire movie within that simple conceit. The screenplay is essentially comprised of variations of a single scene – Sandra confronting a colleague and pleading her case. Yet the Dardennes play that single scene out with so many emotionally devastating variations and a ticking time bomb movie clock that transforms the story into gripping drama without a hint of theatricality.
Despite the inherent urgency to the story, there is reasonable cause for concern over the potential tedium of repeating the same scene over and over and calling it a screenplay. Thankfully, the filmmakers are far too talented for that to be an issue. Each co-worker that Sandra meets feels like a complete person, and they all have their reasons to support or dismiss the young mother’s plight. The Dardennes don’t do heroes and villains. It’s often just as hard for the audience to know how to react as it is for Sanra.
At the center of it all, Cotillard is genuinely remarkable. Depressed into a fugue state, she spends the film on the brink of a second nervous breakdown, with every conversation and confrontation pushing her towards the edge. Popping Xanax like candy, the woman is an emotional wreck, but Cotillard admirably never pushes her performance into easy caricature. Like the film itself, Cottilard’s character is always real and relatable. It’s often painful to watch her on screen, in the best possible sense. She blends into the Dardennes’ mundane cinema beautifully and delivers one of her finest performances. Hopefully, this is far from the final collaboration between the actress and directors.
While ‘Two Days, One Night’ is thankfully devoid of the political sermonizing and audience baiting one might expect, the Dardennes have a very specific point to make. This time, they take on the global economic crisis and the struggle it imposes on everyone. No one in the movie wants to hurt anyone else, yet they’re forced to do exactly that because of how fragile their own financial stability has become. The movie is pointed and harsh in its politics, but never didactic. The focus is human interaction, which is executed extraordinarily. The rest is there only for those who care to look and it certainly ups the poignancy of the proceedings without ever tipping the delicate drama into melodrama.
Like any Dardenne movie, nothing in ‘Two Days, One Night’ leaps out at viewers by demanding attention or recognition. Instead, every scene plays without contrivance. Only after leaving the theater and pulling it all together in your brain does the film truly resonate on all of its intended levels. That’s not an easy task to accomplish by any means, but at this point, the Dardennes seem capable of cranking these movies out at will. May they never stop.