ByRory O'Connor, writer at
Breathing movies. Humbly writing about them.
Rory O'Connor

As this year’s competition tips over to its second half we find a set of brothers from Belgium punting for a third Palme d’Or. They won here with Rosetta in ’99 and again with L’Enfant in 2005, now Jon Pierre & Luc Dardenne return to the croisette with Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night), a starkly contemporary piece of social realism starring Marion Cotillard.

The concept is clear and the brothers set it up fast. We open on the casual, domestic Sandra (a plainly clad and brave Marion Cotillard). It’s Friday evening, she’s helping with dinner. She takes a call to tell her that she’s lost her job; her colleagues apparently having voted to oust her in favour of their €1000 bonuses. She’s naturally distraught but quickly gets to work to change the tide. Her mate calls to say that the vote will be redone on Monday and so sets out to try convince a majority of her 16 workmates to give up their bonuses so that she can stay on.

The game is obviously rigged. Lacking the legal footing to fire her straight out the employers have set a trap for their workers by claiming that the company can only afford to pay for one thing or the other. We learn Sandra has taken time off for her depression. We also learn the boss is continuing to sway votes. It’s a grubby business indeed but Sandra must soldier on. She seeks empathy over pity and tries her best to keep the meds at bay, while taking modicums of strength from her friends and family.

The blame of course rests on the bean-counters upstairs, but by extracting them from the equation the Dardennes force us instead think elsewhere. It's a draining but fascinating exercise as we are forced to try on a host of other people’s shoes. It's easy to say where our vote would lie but life is just never that simple.

Two Days, One Night is a tight, contained piece of work that bears all the hallmarks of its master directors. It's packed with insights on our fundamental relationship with money but is, of course a starkly humanist effort at heart. A socially conscious and defiant film that celebrates the strength we all can give and take from everyday acts of kindness.

Last night Roger Ebert’s widow took to the stage to present a documentary on her late husband’s life. In her moving speech she referenced Ebert’s synonymous mantra of Cinema as the "empathy machine". This morning in the Salle Lumiere we found that machine humming along proudly in rude health.


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