(Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France, 2014)
Every Single Life
If turning simple Christian virtues into compelling dramas has become the Dardenne brothers’ calling card – the impossible forgiveness in The Son’s final moments or the unmotivated act of kindness at the center of The Kid with a Bike to recall the pair’s very best – then Two Days, One Night finds the directors unearthing the inherent worth of every human being. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has been on medical leave for crippling depression, and as the film abruptly starts with the ringing of a cell phone, she finds out one Friday afternoon from a friend at work that her coworkers have voted for a substantial bonus in exchange for her termination. She pulls herself together long enough to face her employer and beg for a revote the following Monday. Upon her husband Manu’s (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione) well-intentioned suggestion, Sandra spends the next two days and one evening visiting her sixteen coworkers to convince them to vote for her to keep her job.
And, as with the brothers’ best work, the filmmakers mold this fairly simple premise into a fascinating character study and a muted near-action thriller. The film is appropriately steady-paced, but the imminent Monday-morning vote gives Sandra’s mission a palpable sense of urgency. Perhaps what is most impressive with regards to the Dardennes’ narrative is that we spend ample time with Sandra as she struggles to cope with her very real mental illness while balancing work and a home life, but the brothers also dedicate the majority of the film’s screen time to the confrontations between Sandra and her coworkers. Sandra repeats herself almost verbatim as she tracks down her coworkers at their homes throughout the city, but from her very first plea over the phone we learn to expect the unexpected.
Despite Sandra’s commitment to presenting her case ad nauseam so as to preserve the integrity of a fair vote, no two conversations are exactly the same. The Dardennes show these uncomfortable confrontations in full, brilliantly allowing suspense to build as we anxiously await each coworker’s response. These character interactions are captivating to watch. Some end before they even begin, some erupt into violence, some lead to revelations about these peripheral characters’ own hardships, and others end in tears. And, as the film progresses it seems for every ‘no’ Sandra receives, she also gains a ‘yes.’ This push and pull is predictable in that it understandably propels the plot forward, but the Dardennes effectively keep their audience guessing with each subsequent, unpredictable encounter. Through these brief meetings the brothers’ film seeks to comment on the value of every single life. Sandra’s coworkers must weigh her personal struggle that ultimately doesn’t affect any one of them against an unearned bonus that most of them somehow already feel entitled to. For those on the fence, the inner conflict is visible on their faces and in their actions. Wisely, then, the Dardennes never condemn these individuals for their decisions. Each of them has inherent worth too.
When Monday morning inevitably arrives, Sandra knows where most of her coworkers stand having spent the last two days seeking answers. Thus, when the result of the vote is communicated to her, there is some semblance of resolve even as she must empty out her locker and vacate the premises. But, like its predecessor The Kid with a Bike, Two Days, One Night bears a late-film complication that upends expectations and thrillingly threatens to spoil an otherwise tidy finale. Over the course of the film, Sandra’s coworkers are asked to determine the value of her worth, but in the film’s final moments the test is flipped and now Sandra finds herself faced with weighing the value of another against her own. These final act conflicts – the confrontation between betrayer and betrayed in Rosetta, the skirmish between teacher and pupil in The Son, the role reversal of victim and perpetrator in The Kid with a Bike – have become the Dardenne brothers’ secret weapon. Over the past two decades they have valiantly accepted the torch from Eric Rohmer as cinematic chroniclers of moral quandaries.
And yet, as much as Two Days, One Night is unmistakably a film of this accomplished pair of filmmakers, it belongs just as much to Cotillard as it does the brothers. Several of their films have relied on a staggering central performance (Émilie Dequenne in Rosetta and Olivier Gourmet in The Son most readily come to mind), but Two Days, One Night finds them working with an international star and former Oscar-winner for the first time. And while the appeal of much their earlier work resides in their dedication to a style of verisimilitude, including the use of either unknown or non-professional actors, the casting of Cotillard pays off immeasurably. While any number of actors could have filled her role adequately, Cotillard is the heart of the film, securing audience support and empathy for her troubled Sandra. No other performer working today conveys depths of emotions with a pair of eyes quite like Cotillard. She is undoubtedly one of contemporary cinema’s greatest treasures.