“The only way to stop crying is to fight for your job.”
One can rarely accuse Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne of cutting to the chase, but less than ten minutes pass in Two Days, One Night before Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) plainly explains to Sandra (Marion Cotillard) — and the viewer — what she must do: spend the weekend convincing her colleagues that they should forsake their bonuses so she can keep her job at a local solar panel manufacturer.
It’s the closest thing the Dardennes have had to a high-concept premise. These Belgian brothers specialize in unscored, handheld dramas about their country’s working class, and while Days is no exception in its naturalistic depiction of low-key economic concerns, it does offer a simple hook and a bonafide movie star. One can hardly say the same for L’Enfant or The Kid with a Bike (no offense, Cécile De France).
However, said hook can be a hard one to swallow. Unless European companies specialize in pitting their employees against one another, the premise is both contrived and repetitive, as Sandra must urge a majority of sixteen co-workers to leave their much-needed thousand-Euro bonuses on the table. It’s not their fault, after all, that boss Dumont (Baptiste Sornin) has forced them to make such a harsh choice, or that foreman Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet) has convinced some that they’ll be on the chopping block should she stay.
If one is willing to roll with it, the remainder of the film makes for steadily tense interactions. For Sandra, going door-to-door is essentially a series of auditions, using the same script each time yet earning wildly different reactions: some cower, others cry, and a few even lash out violently. All would hate to be in her shoes, and yet that’s where we find ourselves, tied to a protagonist who must swallow her pride and can’t settle for pity.
It wouldn’t be an easy task for anyone to accomplish, but returning from a medical leave, Sandra remains visibly despondent at times, and there’s a case to be made that the office was just as efficient in her absence. If she loses her job, she might do something rash; Manu’s nigh-saintly support suggests she may have before. Then again, should she stay, there’s no limit to the potential resentment amid her cash-strapped peers.
The Dardennes achieve a commendable credibility to the particulars of both this situation (the boss has consented to a blind vote) and the individual circumstances that Sandra encounters. Other people have enough other problems — home repairs, tutoring costs, medical bills, unemployment — to keep her worries in constant check. The story isn’t an overly political or geographical statement; for better or worse, one could all too easily picture the same struggles taking place on New York City stoops (“This holiday season, from the producers of The Pursuit of Happyness…”).
Our heroine can’t be helped, though, unless she helps herself, and in the glammed-down tradition of countless beauties before her, Cotillard leaves herself emotionally plain as well. Although Sandra’s manic-depressive episodes can reek of timely inconvenience, her fragile performance convincingly conveys the peaks and valleys of persistence and doubt that might come with such a prolonged dilemma. For a proven talent, this is an especially intimate showcase, and Cotillard rises to the occasion.
The stakes couldn’t be smaller, but then the Dardennes never have been interested in their characters saving the world, just surviving it. In that regard, Two Days, One Night is a sufficiently gripping success.
The Upside: As strong a performance as any we’ve seen out of Cotillard.
The Downside: A contrived premise results in an intentionally repetitive structure.
On the Side: Marion Cotillard has starred in at least one official Cannes selection every year since 2011, while the Dardennes have been back every three years like clockwork since 1996.