Directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne
A worker at a solar panel factory, Sandra (Cotillard) has been on protracted sick leave, during which time her company has decided it can function without her. With Sandra on the verge of making a return to work, the employees are given a difficult decision to make: they can take Sandra back, but doing so will result in the loss of each employee's €1000 annual bonus. With her co-workers given the weekend to make their minds up before casting their votes in a secret ballot the following Monday, initially Sandra is unwilling to ask them to make such a sacrifice, but under pressure from her husband Manu (Rongione), she spends the weekend visiting each of them in an attempt to win a majority vote in her favour.
The premise of the Dardennes' latest is so high concept, yet so simple, it's amazing it's never been utilised before. It harks back to the golden age of Hollywood social drama, the 50s, and you could easily imagine Montgomery Clift or Brando undergoing Sandra's demeaning journey in black and white. With its arm-twisting premise, Two Days, One Night suggests the influence of Twelve Angry Men and High Noon, but the Dardennes are nothing if not ambiguous, so in their take we're never quite certain if we should view Fonda and Cooper as heroes or villains.
From the opening of the movie it's clear that Sandra is in no fit state to return to work. She's willing to accept losing her job, but it's a sacrifice husband Manu isn't willing to make. He tells his suffering wife he's unwilling to raise his family in social housing, but as Sandra visits her co-workers, it becomes all too clear that they are in a far worse position than her own family, with most of them living in exactly the sort of situation Manu is so desperate to avoid.
There will be few viewers who haven't had to change their lifestyle in recent years, and having become a master of cutting financial corners, I couldn't help but make a mental list of the ways Sandra and Manu were wasting the money they're so worried about. It's unclear whether this is naivete on the part of the filmmakers or whether they're actually critiquing first world entitlement, but when you're financially struggling you don't order in pizza and buy your sandwiches from a deli. Manu and Sandra are seen constantly treating themselves, while asking others to give up life's necessities. As one worker informs Sandra, €1000 is "a year's gas and electricity." Or a year's pizza and sandwiches.
The further Sandra progresses on her quest, the less we want her to succeed. Even when finding some of her co-workers in the process of working a second weekend job, clearly in no position to give up their bonus, she presses on regardless. The brilliance of the Dardennes is to hook you in with what initially seems a black and white premise, only to turn it a murky shade of grey. Though we quickly turn against Sandra's, or rather her husband's, solipsistic mission, we still root for her, but we're rooting for her to do the right thing, to face up to her situation, like Tom Hardy's title character in this year's other great social drama Locke.
Cotillard's performance is a career best, and an example for future actors wishing to portray onscreen frailty. There's nothing over the top or dramatic about the portrayal of her illness. Like a wounded gazelle circled by hungry Lions, she brilliantly essays a woman simply struggling to stay on her feet.
For all its subtlety and amibiguity, there's one moment in Two Days, One Night that, while not ruining the film entirely, certainly holds it back from greatness. It's an unnecessary moment that feels forced for the sake of drama, and it's very unlike what we expect from the Dardennes. But worst of all, it's simply impossible to swallow, unless Belgium is home to the world's most irresponsible hospital staff. Edit out this incident and Two Days, One Night is the film of the year. As it is, we'll have to file it under flawed almost-masterpiece.
By Eric Hillis