“Two Days, One Night” is the latest film from the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, who have made careers out of cinema that examines people living on the margins of society, like child laborers and immigrants in “La Promesse” and the abused daughter of an alcoholic in “Rosetta.” The characters in “Two Days, One Night” are slightly more legitimately employed than those in the Dardennes’s other films, but only slightly—most are working one main job and then a second under-the-table one, all are desperate to stay off unemployment, everyone wants to work and no one wants a handout. It’s in the job-strapped, competitive environment of Belgium that “Two Days, One Night” takes place, and it’s the kind of film that raises significant questions about what pressures are placed on our working class and how nearly impossible it is to earn a living. Cotillard’s almost haunted performance will stay with you.
The film focuses on Sandra (Cotillard, of “The Dark Knight Rises”), a wife and mother of two young children who recently suffered a nervous breakdown and took some amount of sick leave off from her job at a solar panel factory. She’s finally ready to go back to work when she receives a call one Friday afternoon from a coworker and friend who frantically informs her that management decided, during her absence, that their workforce can function without her, so they’ve decided to downsize from 17 people to 16. To receive the approval of her fellow employees, they conducted a vote so people voted either for Sandra to keep her job or for them to receive bonuses instead—and 14 people voted for the bonuses.
The majority has spoken, the overseer of the factory thinks, but there’s a wrinkle: the foreman, who for some reason has it out for Sandra, warned others before the vote that they would lose their jobs if Sandra didn’t. Because of that colluding move, the factory overseer agrees to conduct another secret ballot on Monday, giving Sandra the weekend to track down her coworkers and try to convince them to vote for her job, not for their bonuses. It’s an undeniably stressful, extremely difficult task, and for a woman who has to keep reminding herself not to cry, who is scared to return to public housing with her husband and her children, and who is taking more Xanax pills than she really should, it may be her breaking point.
What is most affecting about “Two Days, One Night,” strictly from a narrative point of view, is its straightforward depiction of everyday life: how quickly things change in the world and how the only way to keep going is to actually put one foot in front of the other, to go a little bit farther, to have one more conversation, to try and connect with one more person. How else is there to live? There are no flashy schemes here, just the fear of a woman for herself when others have let her down. There is a complete sense of the unpredictability in life that “Two Days, One Night” captures poignantly, while also allowing for the various shades of grey in people, as evidenced by Sandra’s conversations with her coworkers: one breaks into tears when admitting that he should have voted for her; a woman who she had been friendly with before refuses to see her; she runs into another man at a grocery store, working an illegal second job to make ends meet; another woman nods sympathetically at her plight but resolutely refuses to help while carrying numerous shopping bags, as if she’s spent the bonus already. It’s the degrees of human sympathy, fragility, and self-preservation that are on display in “Two Days, One Night,” and it’s as optimistic as it is pessimistic. That’s just life.
The film couldn’t have succeeded without Cotillard, though, who the Dardenne brothers make the center of every shot—concentrating on her face during conversations with her husband, who she fears pities instead of loves her; on her back as she walks away from each coworker interaction, hunched further into herself; and giving us a clear view of her eyes during one of her only moments of pure happiness, singing along to a rock song on the radio. “I’m not up to it anymore,” Sandra says of persuading the others, but Cotillard tackles the role itself with a mixture of barely hidden desperation and unwavering will.
“Two Days, One Night” is an emotionally grueling movie, but it never falls into straight despair, and it’s never exploitatively depressing just because it can be. The Dardenne brothers poke into the corners of society that are in danger of being forgotten and make sure we consider the people on the fringes, and “Two Days, One Night” uses an excellent performance from Cotillard to ground us in that struggle. It’s a movie you’ll keep thinking about.
Enjoy reading this review? Check out our roundup of what other films are opening this week.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.