I’m going to do my best here to explain why this film is great. There’ll be words, superlatives, arguments urging you to go and see it. But perhaps the best recommendation possible comes courtesy of the elderly couple sat behind me in the cinema when I saw it. We all got to the end of the picture, the credits began and there was an audible gasp behind me as the cast was displayed on the screen.
“They were actors?” the man said, incredulous, “I thought it was a documentary.”
Forgiving his unfamiliarity of Marion Cottilard and her celebrity for a moment, the very fact that this man was moved to such an exclamation perfectly encapsulates the deft power of Two Days, One Night, the latest film from the critically adored Dardenne Brothers. Cards on the table time; this is the first of their films that I have seen. But on this basis I’m sure there’s a wealth of interesting material to dip into now that I’ve finally joined the bandwagon.
As you might be able to tell, I liked this movie a bit.
Two Days, One Night tells the story of Sandra (Cottilard), a woman fighting depression who is hoping to return to her job making solar panels at a small company with sixteen other workers. The film opens with her receiving some gut-punching news; her manager has offered her colleagues a choice; either Sandra is fired or they keep her on but lose their annual bonuses. The vote was unanimous – she’s out.
Fearing the financial hardships of maintaining a life for her devoted family, Sandra is ready to give up and regress into defeat, yet her work friend Juliette (Catherine Salée) and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongoine) urge her to fight. A new vote is scheduled for Monday morning, giving Sandra the weekend to corral support – a majority vote will allow her to keep her job, if she can convince enough people to give up their precious bonuses. Thus the film follows Sandra through these two days as she wrestles with the challenge ahead of her. The question isn’t simply will Sandra convince over half of them to help save her way of life, but whether she will have the resolve to confront them at all.
Needless to say from the reaction above, the Dardennes’ film approaches this small-scale community drama with such carefully played honesty and overwhelming complexity that it feels like a genuine struggle, one with monumental ramifications for those involved. The narrative is by its very nature repetitious, as Sandra meets each colleague in turn and tries to present her case. The most obvious cinematic comparison seems to be 12 Angry Men; the classic jury set-up in which Henry Fonda’s voice of conscience gradually instils a reasonable doubt in eleven other mindsets. Yet Two Days, One Night is far more complex than this; and it’s conclusion far less clear-cut. With 12 Angry Men you know where the story is going, just not how it’s going to get there. For the Dardennes no one outcome is for certain. Real life is rarely so didactic. And their outright refusal to play to dramatic expectations keeps throwing the audience for a loop.
There are layers of interesting social and emotional conundrums exposed by this film, and at no point is the film simplistic enough to merely side with Sandra as the heroine. She is deeply empathetic to her colleagues’ economic concerns, and it is with heartfelt regret and almost constant reluctance that she instigates these awkward requests for mercy. The reactions she receives run the gamet, from unnecessary hostility to – in one of the film’s most overtly moving scenes – whole-hearted remorse. Others simply refuse to participate, hiding behind net curtains. All the while the secondary struggle within Sandra adds a further layer of unpredictability to the task; this weekend might simply ask too much of her.
Cottilard – an actress of no small reservoir of talent – has perhaps never been better than she is here, shaping Sandra into a multi-dimensional person, struggling with conflicted feelings of pride, defeat, anger and shame, yet also capable of great strength and fleeting, rallying resolve. While never melodramatic or overtly feeling like a ‘performance’, what she achieves here is simply incredible. A wholly immersive and believable human being right there on the screen before you. Two Days, One Night is not merely an opportunity for this established actress to dip her toes back into smaller, artier waters (the film is almost completely without ego); it is a genuine chance for her to create something memorable and wonderful. At this she succeeds totally.
As mentioned previously, none of this would work so well if it weren’t grounded in such a believable reality. The Dardenne’s suburban landscape is not one of hard-grafted misery. There is no romanticising of blue-collar toil here. Instead the world is presented in neutral tones, where life is made up of mealtimes and bus rides, car journeys and launderettes. These things just are. It might not sound exhilarating, but it doesn’t need to be; the insurmountable suspense and investment is wrought from the way in which Sandra’s comparatively minor struggle is her whole world. Two Days, One Night sort of sneaks up on you, until you have to know how this all plays out. The film’s final scenes reject dramatic expectation as much as the preceding 90 minutes, but again hit just the right note of truthfulness. It’s easy to take these things for granted, but rarely does a film achieve this kind of complexity with such seemingly effortless grace.
A film, then, that may seem underwhelming until you accept how successful it is. One that asks us how we would respond to Sandra’s plea for compassion just as pointedly as it underlines how difficult asking for compassion can be. In almost every conversation she has, the Dardennes split the frame, shutting Sandra in one half and her prospective mark in the other. Watching, you can dip into either side and take their vantage point. Two Days, One Night plays fair throughout, and once it’s got you, you’ll be engaged to the last second.