Film Review: Two Days, One Night

Uncharacteristically, this new movie from Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne moves rather slowly, and mostly consists of the hero having similar conversations with a number of her colleagues.
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Like all of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films, Two Days, One Night chronicles the lives of working-class characters. This one stars Marion Cotillard, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose (2008). Cotillard plays Sandra, a married mother of two, who is about to resume her factory job after suffering a nervous breakdown. While she was away, management realized they could do without her and reduce the payroll. In order for Sandra to return, the remainder of the staff will need to relinquish their yearly bonuses. Management forces a vote and Sandra loses, but a friend convinces the boss that she should be given a second chance to win over her co-workers.

Sandra has one weekend to inspire solidarity among her colleagues, many of whom depend upon the bonus to meet their children’s college expenses or their utility bills. She visits each in turn, begging for her job, but telling them she harbors no hard feelings if they cannot vote in her favor. With large doses of Xanax, and the help of her husband Manu, played by Dardenne Brothers regular Fabrizio Rangione (The Kid with a Bike, Rosetta), Sandra fights her anxiety and sets out to preserve the income that pays their mortgage. Otherwise, the family may have to return to public housing. Fine performances from nearly every member of the cast gloss over a schematic plot and the unusually slow pace of this Dardenne Brothers movie.

Cotillard shines in scenes where she is popping pills and talking to herself, although in the sequence with Manu on the afternoon they spend visiting co-workers, she is sometimes stone-faced, presumably to represent the effects of the medication. Had there been fewer colleagues, and less lengthy exchanges, perhaps this might have added dimension to her character and to the circumstances, but as it is, these scenes only highlight the already deliberate plotting. To the actor’s credit, she performs without the benefit of makeup or hairstyling, so that sometimes it is easy to forget her beauty, and how difficult it must have been for her to work, in mid-career, against the qualities that catapulted her into starring roles. Rangione is excellent as Sandra’s supportive but concerned husband; it is his performance that hints at the family’s troubled backstory and perhaps Sandra’s penchant for self-destruction.

After the entrance of Anne, a colleague and battered wife, played memorably by Christelle Cornil, Two Days, One Night begins to move more swiftly to a predictable yet skillfully written denouement. In this portion of the film, the Dardennes’ meticulous attention to rendering the lives of those who live paycheck-to-paycheck is most apparent. In their first scene together, Anne explains to Sandra that she needs her bonus to shore up a home with flooding problems, and in another scene, Anne, Manu and Sandra share a wonderful moment in the car listening to classic rock. These sequences evoke not only the present lives of these characters, but their past struggles, and the pleasure they take in their solidarity, at work and in the substantial financial challenges they face, especially when Anne decides to walk out on her husband.

It is not often that movies so authentically portray the travails of working-class characters in developed countries. In Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes do so not so much by pitting their characters against a capitalist system that seeks to exploit them, although that sentiment is always there in the subtext of their movies, but rather by illustrating the nuances usually elided in such depictions in favor of a rousing victory. Sandra may spend the rest of her life in hourly jobs, yet at the end of the film her triumph is significant: She no longer feels powerless. How many of us who toil for greater financial rewards can make the same claim? While the art-house audience for Dardenne Brothers’ movies may not envy Sandra, neither will they imagine that her struggle for self-actualization is very different from their own.

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