A thirty-something factory worker in a Belgian rustbelt town returns from medical leave to discover she’s become redundant. She has a weekend in which to persuade a majority of her sixteen colleagues to sacrifice their thousand-euro bonuses so that she can get back her job. Such is the situation dramatized by the Belgian filmmaker-brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne in their new film, Two Days, One Night, featuring Marion Cotillard in what may be the most self-effacing, yet bravura performance of the year—and one which has garnered the actress a surprise Oscar nomination.
Like most of the Dardennes’ previous films, Two Days, One Night traffics in suspense and is a sort of thriller. But as a search for a lost (or stolen) livelihood, it is also a descendant of The Bicycle Thief, the neo-realist classic that, as André Bazin noted, implies a world in which “the poor must steal from each other in order to survive.” In post-industrial Europe, this predicament has been globalized. The factory that employed Cotillard’s character, Sandra, is a solar panel manufacturer that is itself struggling in the global economy, being undersold by Asian competitors. For Sandra, the shame of unemployment is compounded by the threat that she will lose her precarious middle-class existence: “I feel like a beggar,” she tells her husband. and so she will become one.
Filmed in sequence, Two Days, One Night is essentially a series of one-on-one confrontations between Sandra and her erstwhile workmates, each encounter a single take. Again and again, she must summon the resolve to make a cold telephone call or knock on someone’s door, knowing that some had already supported her dismissal. Sandra is perpetually standing on the threshold of rejection, uncertain whether she will be greeted with hostility, false sympathy, or indifference.
The Dardennes, who are in their early sixties, made social documentaries for two decades, mainly for Belgian TV, before turning to fiction films in the 1990s. Shot cinema verité style, these tightly focused tales of sin, grace, and redemption typically centered on a single, problematic character or ethical dilemma—the situation of exploited foreign workers in La Promesse (1996) and Lorna’s Silence (2008), unemployed youth in Rosetta (1999), juvenile crime in The Son (2002), abandoned children in L’enfant (2005) and The Kid with a Bike (2011). All were filmed in and around the brothers’s hometown, Seraing, a small industrial city that was once the center of the Belgian steel industry as well as a flashpoint for the general strike in the winter of 1960-1961 (the subject of an early Dardenne documentary).
The Dardennes have twice won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, but Two Days, One Night is their first film with even a trace of glitz. The presence of Cotillard creates a fascinating new subtext: a glamorous star who previously won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Édith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, has often graced the covers of glossy fashion magazines and, is among the most highly remunerated actors in France finds herself, over and over, forced to beg for help from her vastly less well-known supporting cast. The effect is extraordinary—it is a person we recognize as a “have” forced to do a sort of penance, soliciting aid for herself in the world of the “have-nots.” The filmmakers have approvingly characterized these repetitive encounters as “grueling and uncomfortable” as well as “crucial” to their movie’s impact.
Tense and bowed down, her voice and expressions strained, Cotillard carries the weight of the story (as well as the movie) on slender, slightly hunched shoulders. Her character, who had been hospitalized for depression, is all nerves. When, in one moment of despair, Sandra cries that she feels as though she doesn’t exist and is “nothing at all,” she articulates some deeper truth about workers in the ruthless new economy—what the sociologist-philosopher Pierre Bourdieu saw as the unnerving erosion of personal dignity in the absence of job security. (Indeed, according to the Dardennes, Two Days, One Night was inspired by a case study found in Bourdieu’s The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society.)
The Dardennes require Cotillard for their film to work but it is very much an ensemble piece. (Significantly, the star seems less jostled by the camera—and thus more contextualized by the surrounding screen space—than previous Dardenne protagonists.) Everyone whom Sandra solicits for support gets to articulate a particular situation and specific need for the promised bonus as well as the opportunities for overtime pay that the elimination of Sandra’s job would create. Moreover, we get a sense of how these characters chose or, more likely, are compelled to spend their weekend free time: many appear to have second jobs, others engage in home repairs or some form of community service.
Apart from Cotillard, the actors in Two Days, One Night are largely drawn from the Belgian regional theater, with a number of them having appeared in other Dardenne productions. Their movies have a certain continuity; the Dardennes not only employ a de facto stock company of actors but use them to evoke their characterizations. Here employed as a cook in a fast-food restaurant, Sandra’s husband (Fabrizio Rongione) manned a waffle stand in Rosetta. Her unsympathetic foreman is played by Olivier Gourmet, who, present in virtually every Dardenne film, is a kind of archetype of their hard-scrabble world.
Writing in Sight and Sound, the English film critic Tony Rayns suggested that Two Days, One Night was essentially “a Hollywood feel-good movie about personal growth.” That the Dardennes address the subjects of unemployment, downsizing, globalization, and the “casualization” of work (not dress-down Fridays but the replacement of permanent employees with temporary ones) makes their movie at least as much a collective drama about the stagnation of economic growth. Still, Rayns’s observation is not inapt.
For all their naturalism, the filmmakers are not above melodrama. At one point, Sandra’s anxiety is amplified by a French rendition of the classic rock head-banger “Needles and Pins” on the car radio; at another, worker solidarity is exalted by a spontaneous group-sing of Van Morrison’s rock’n’roll epiphany, “Gloria.” Nor do the filmmakers work against expectation. Two Day’s most vulnerable characters—a middle-aged man beaten by his son, a wife who is bullied by her husband—are the most naturally empathetic, along with the Benetton rainbow of Sandra’s salt-of-the-earth East European, Arab, and African comrades.
Two Days, One Night offers much to think about but, like other Dardenne movies, it is an appeal to the emotions. The movie’s first shot has Cotillard come to consciousness in a state of near-panic as the reality of her situation sets in; the last image shows her smiling in something like a state of grace. By learning to beg others to make sacrifices for her she gains the strength to sacrifice for them. The movie is a parable of caritas as much as it is of solidarity; the ordeal (or the passion) that Sandra endures, and we with her, is not just a suspenseful story, it’s the real subject of the movie.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night is now playing at select theaters.