The Lasting Humanity of ‘Two Days, One Night’

By  · Published on March 11th, 2017

On the Dardenne brothers’ exploration of normalcy.

Marion Cotillard in ‘Two Days, One Night

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and his younger brother Luc, commonly referred to as the Dardenne brothers, open their 2014 drama Two Days, One Night with a birds-eye-view shot of Marion Cotillard as Sandra Bya lying on a sofa asleep and alone. She gets woken up by the ringtone from her phone, a prop from outside of the frame disrupting her state, while the character on the other end intrudes the frame ‐ even while unseen to both the viewer and Sandra. This out-of-frame intrusion is an important conceit that follows the remainder of the film as it highlights both the subtleties of Cotillard’s performance and the Dardenne brothers’ direction when it comes to depicting depression onscreen, and also the complexity found in the most simple and mundane images and sounds.

Two Days, One Night follows Sandra, a working class mother of two, after she returns home from the hospital. The first moment we meet her, she finds out she has lost her job. While she was ill, her boss, M. Dumont (Batiste Sornin), realized 16 people could do the job of 17 and so gave his workers the choice between receiving a 1,000 euro pay raise or letting Sandra keep her job. The majority chose the former. The film sets up Sandra’s motivation as a second, private ballot is called, upon the revelation that one of the workers, Jean-Marc, created rumors against her.

Except Sandra doesn’t have any motivation, especially at the beginning of the film. She spends the majority of Two Days, One Night trying to win the votes of her coworkers, yet the Dardenne brothers make it clear her motivation comes from the feelings the people around Sandra create for her. Her husband’s (Fabrizio Rongione) rejection of going into an endless world of negativity and instead opting for positivity is what helps Sandra begin (and begin again) the discussions with her coworkers. And after each conversation with her peers, which through her eyes are only ever seen in the black and white of positive or negative, she either walks away smiling or ready to go back to bed by seven o’clock.

In one of the meetings between her colleagues, Sandra has two people decline to vote for her in succession of each other. The camera stays in a close up on her face, tracking her as she walks away. However, it’s only after the cut to her having lunch with her children that are we able to see a reaction, with Sandra having to excuse herself to cry. The shot that follows with her husband— a voyeuristic positioning of a handheld camera that doesn’t stay still ‐ somehow mirrors the separation of the meetings between her colleagues. Where the frame is fragmented and split by ladders, doorways, and brick walls when she’s in conversation with her colleagues, with her husband there is no split between the two characters. All that obscures the frame is the back of a truck. Sandra’s emotions are hidden from the viewer here, returning to the opening of the film and the protagonist’s repeated demands to herself that “you mustn’t cry.” These emotions are not only hidden from her children and the viewer, but from herself, too. It’s only when her husband continues with the conceit of intruding Sandra’s frame that her face becomes seen, the border between alienation and connectivity crossed.

The Dardenne brothers have described how Two Days, One Night’s border-like framing is created by using physical obstacles. Luc states:

“There’s always something separating the characters in the scenes. And when one of the characters says they’re going to go with Sandra and vote in her favor, the separation disappears.”

Luc uses the meeting between Sandra and a soccer player as an example of this separation. A railing acts as the emotional barrier between them, with the soccer player’s touching of Sandra’s hand (emphasized in a close-up) connoting their newfound connection. And this use of close-up also emphasizes the intensity of emotion Sandra feels, with both Cotillard and the Dardenne brothers conveying her emotion in subtle and vulnerable ways. Sandra goes from calling upon her reflection to “hold up” and “not cry” and feeling as though she doesn’t exist, that she’s “nothing, nothing at all,” to walking with excitement and a smile, with a medium tracking shot allowing the light to compliment her newfound temporary happiness ‐ temporary being the important word.

Sandra knows her happiness after her successful meetings is fleeting, something reinstated in Luc’s soccer player example: even though he placed his hand on Sandra’s, the barrier between them ‐ the railing ‐ still exists. Yet it’s here where the Dardenne brothers’ humanity is emphasized, with Sandra’s vulnerability neither judged nor made as a statement ‐ it just is. The directors use long takes and voyeuristic stances in order to show Sandra’s mentality. They “celebrate vulnerability and fragility because it’s the opposite of what is being pushed in society today, which is victory to the strongest.” As with L’Enfant and The Kid with a Bike and indeed the rest of their oeuvre, this celebration of the often ignored and undermined parts of life mirrors the small and specific worlds the Dardenne brothers focus on. They may be small, but there’s a lot that inhabits them.

The same conceits are seen throughout the Dardennes’ oeuvre. La Promesse sees the brothers use their well-known long, uncut shots depicting scenes of domesticity, and Rosetta uses its lack of music in order to focus the sound of the film on the everyday. The directors’ films explore stories and characters that focus on naturalistic portraits of the working class, as in L’Enfant, which tells the story of Bruno and Sonia, a young couple who fall into a world of desperation and guilt at the revelation of Sonia’s pregnancy. The brothers’ filmmaking style continues their attempt at portraying the real and everyday, with their use of non-professional and unknown actors, lack of artificial lighting, and focus on the hard-working characters recalling the mid-40s to early-50s Italian Neorealist movement.

Two Days, One Night, with its real-time shots of Sandra’s meetings and lack of music, is no different to the Neorealist conventions often seen in a Dardenne brothers film. However, while the conventions of the film remain the same, the way the story of Sandra is told differs. Not only did the directors choose to cast a well-known and established actress as the lead and give their actors a five week rehearsal (clearly straying from Neorealism), but the timeframe of Two Days, One Night also makes the film a quiet suspense thriller rather than the simple yet unpredictable narratives the Dardennes’ viewers are used to. As Tony Rayns notes in Sight & Sound, the “tight timeframe and the threat of a relapse into breakdown[…] generate low-key suspense.” The Dardennes ensure their viewers are always waiting for the next thing to happen, with both the viewers and the directors in agreement of the kind of suspense that unravels, the everyday. From the success of Sandra’s first phone call ‐ a reminder that she exists ‐ to the scene in which she wishes she were a bird constantly chirping, the Dardenne brothers’ ability to make Two Days, One Night a semi-suspense film proves their craft. They can turn an everyday setting and an average life into a compelling narrative.

The bright pink top Sandra wears during the two most important sections of the film acts as gentle emotional irony and a constant juxtaposition between Sandra’s internal and external worlds. But it’s the directors’ focus on nature that returns Two Days, One Night to its realist style. The contrast between the bright summer sun and Sandra’s heavy body language reinstates her distance from the world around her. Throughout the film, Sandra walks as though she is being pushed back by an unseen force, having to fight through her weariness to attempt to save a job she’s already lost once. Pair this against the bright sun that, again, intrudes her frames, often pouring through window curtains and cast onto her face through gaps in tree branches, and the cruel contrast the Dardennes present become clear: the brightness of the world against the dimness of Sandra’s emotions. Importantly, the sun is never presented as working against Sandra, but instead is another obstacle Sandra has to work through. Its uncontrollability emphasizes Sandra’s lack of control over the votes of her coworkers.

Ultimately, it’s not only the stories the Dardennes portray that emphasizes their humanity, but the way in which these stories are told. Cotillard’s Sandra is the clear protagonist of Two Days, One Night, but the camera’s focus on her colleagues shows the Dardennes’ empathy toward not just Sandra, but humanity at large. Despite the obstacles that split Sandra and her colleagues, the way the characters are framed at entrances into their homes, or stopped in the middle of a hobby such as soccer, gives both the viewer and Sandra a glimpse into their world in order to create questions of morality.

Without revealing the outcome of Two Days, One Night, the ending of the film leaves Sandra as she declares she is happy. For Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, it did not matter if Sandra got her job back, since the experience of the film ‐ and this is true of the rest of their work ‐ is focused on the journey rather than the outcome.

Freelance writer based in the UK.