by Kathie Smith
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are skilled manufacturers of empathy, nuanced in subtle stories around unlikely heroes. Although the Dardennes got their start in documentaries, their advocacy for society’s underserved flourished with their narrative successes—most notably Rosetta (1999), which won the Palme d’Or and Best Actress at Cannes but also had enough real-world gravity to motivate child labor reform in their home country of Belgium. In many ways, Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes’ most recent movie, imagines Rosetta, the seventeen-year-old namesake of their award winning film, fifteen years later, still wanting to believe in the rewards of honest hard work. But instead of recompense for toeing a very hard line, Rosetta, here named Sandra and played by Marion Cotillard, represents an individual crushed, despite her stamina, by a very unfair system rooted in the glories of capitalism.
Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Producers: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Denis Freyd
Writers: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Cinematographer: Alain Marcoen
Editor: Marie-Hélène Dozo
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Batiste Sornin, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Alain Eloy, Myriem Akheddiou, Fabienne Sciascia, Rania Mellouli, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Christelle Cornil
Premiere: May 20, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 24, 2014
US Distributor: IFC Films
Sandra has recently returned to work from a temporary leave of absence for depression only to find out that her job has been put up for a vote. While she was not present, her co-workers at a small plant that manufactures solar panels were given two options: to keep Sandra (although they have proven they can make do without her) or to continue to pick up her slack and receive a 1,000 Euro bonus (an amount that means the world to many of the paycheck-to-paycheck workers). The result of the majority-rules vote is that Sandra be fired. Her minority allies, however, feel that the foreman, likely getting an even larger bonus for cutting labor costs, may have unfairly influenced the vote, and they petition for another vote by secret ballot—giving Sandra an opportunity to make her case. Sandra, whose will is already scarred from visible bouts of self-doubt, has the weekend to seek out her voting co-workers and beg compassion.
Sandra and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), who works in a restaurant, have worked hard for the middle-class lifestyle ideal for their two young children, even if they are not exactly there yet. Losing her salary would force them to consider returning to subsidized housing—a defeat, as we intuit from their discussions, which they have staved off with all available energy until now. Sandra has little option but to fight; to gather phone numbers and addresses and go door-to-door, face-to-face and ask her co-workers to vote for her job.
It would be easy to accuse the Dardennes of stacking the deck with an improbable scenario, but investigate any layoff scenario close enough and there will always be layers of institutional manipulation to defer corporate culpability. The choice given to Sandra’s co-workers is really no choice at all, but an obscene transference of guilt and one that appeals to the worst tendencies of greed and dispassion. Sandra’s confrontations, which Cotillard handles with both grace and audacity, reveal a spectrum of sympathetic human responses from a demographic buried in the 99%. The characters we are introduced to are not unlike Sandra—a street-wise community of survivors who rely on a stable job. When Sandra explains the situation and asks for their vote on Monday, more than one person replies, “I’m not voting against you. I’m voting for my bonus.”
Cotillard, who inhabits and owns every scene in this movie, lives in the skin of Sandra—paradoxically fragile and resilient, and a personality cultivated by oppression and the myth of individual will in the free market. Sandra’s back-story is read in her expressions, her reactions, her posture, and her empowering and devastating actions. The rare smile or laugh she delivers works as an elixir of hope that no amount of writing or filmmaking could create. Cotillard’s performance as Sandra is the best of the year, actor or actress, and it’s hard to believe that anyone else would be considered for a Best Actress Oscar, but such is the stigma of a foreign language and the Academy’s honorary debt to Julianne Moore.
As much heartbreak as there is in Two Days, One Night, this is a movie about resilience against poor odds—a resilience that dogmatic corporate structures lay odds against every day of the week. The reverberations of Sandra’s actions may not spark a revolution, but they are a testament to individual perseverance. As clichéd as that might sound, the Dardennes use a very light touch, not only with the heartstrings but also potent social metaphors. They find power in more simple tropes—Sandra’s renewed self-confidence and the seeds of consideration she plants in each of her co-workers, regardless of how they decide to vote. Two Days, One Night might be one of the Dardennes’ most uncomplicated movies as far as narrative goes—patiently allowing Sandra to go from one person to the next and on to the next with her sober request—but its distilled emotional power, working on the simple adage of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes,’ makes it one of their most effective films to date.