Originally published on This Is Film
If you turned on the news, you’d be forgiven for almost forgetting about the recession. It has vanished from our immediate consciousness, replaced by new worldwide worries of IS and Ebola, making it all too easy to forget that many around the world are still struggling.
Sandra is a woman. Am everyday woman, a wife, a mother that works at a solar panel factory in small town Belgium. Returning from extended leave due to depression and immediately told she is a burden, adding to her existing anxiety, she is informed that the 16-strong staff voted – in order to get a bonus of 1000 euros each, she must be fired. After begging for a second chance, her boss relents and says he will hold a secret ballot on Monday, where her co-workers can choose anonymously. Determined to keep her job and support her family, struggling to stay afloat, she uses her two days and one night before she may lose her last shred of stability to personally visit each of her 16 co-workers, asking them to vote for her to stay.
The Dardennes are known for their social realism tales of foster children, wayward youths, immigrants, and families struggling to stay afloat. They’re always typical people woven into the fringes of a small town, the same town. It’s an unremarkable town, pretty in a small village way, but, really, one that wouldn’t look too out-of-place in most of the Western world. Unmarked by distinctive aesthetic differences, the Dardennes have created films that have taken an interpretation of shared human experience to another level – they’ve made not only the narratives but the surroundings universal, only heightening the realism.
Two Days, One Night, as many have said, is no genre change for the Dardennes. They do it so well, so why not keep doing it? It’s all here – the feel you’re thrown in the deep end with the characters, right in the middle of what’s happening, the trademark social conscience, even the soft colour scheme with plenty of plenty of pastels is here. Yes, by and large, there’s nothing new here. But, with the addition of established star Marion Cotillard (a rare quality in Dardenne films), other slight changes are made. So slight, in fact, they barely make the grass sway, but with many other filmmakers, they would very nearly whip up a cyclone.
In this tale of Sandra, who is currently living in some kind of sick, real life public humiliation straight out of the Bible, having to plead with her coworkers to decline the bonus. They all need it. She acknowledges that it’s a sacrifice, one that she may not have made if the roles were reversed, because every employee is still feeling the pinch. Her recent absence makes it all the more embarrassing, having to publicly fight when she is already beaten down by the world.
In a performance that wears Sandra’s world-weariness like a cross tied to her back, Marion Cotillard may be playing an extremely tired character, but she is anything but to watch. She is effortless and achingly absent of sugar-coating, appropriately jittery, changing her emotions like a revolving door without ever feeling uneven. She, in a wonderful performance, is anchored by a band of supporting players that, even with their limited screen time, play a just as important and powerful part of holding the delicate fabric of the film together.
So what exactly in Two Days, One Night sets it, ever so slightly apart from the rest of the Dardennes’ work, in addition to the distinct social immediacy that wakes the viewer up to still what’s happening, creating a talking point? Unlike The Kid With a Bike and their other films that were purely observational, without much in the way of distinct plot beats and cataclysmic events, Two Days, One Night is still unintrusive, but has a lot more in the way of traditional drama scenes that jump out and ingrain themselves in the mind of the viewer as a distinct moment.
But, in addition to this, what sets Two Days, One Night apart is that, despite the musical moments and violence not common in Dardenne canon, the almost thriller-like sensibilities create a tightly-wound but unforced and simplistic tale that never errs into sentimentality. Its intricate composition, sensitivity and subtle drawing of the audience into the debate holds it together understatedly but never insularly, building to one of the most perfectly judged and cathartic conclusions of 2014. Sandra’s journey, one where struggles are completely unromanticised, is a metamorphosis of perception, and by the end, you’ll be feeling a change too. Maybe this journey was for a reason…