Two Days, One Night screens in select cities on Christmas Day. It expands to Chicago's Music Box Theater on Friday, January 16, 2015.
We’re lucky if we lead a life of perpetual high points. Or of doing something noteworthy every day. But the reality is that we embrace the routine. We crave structure. Two Days, One Night is about a woman whose routine, whose source of structure, is taken from her: she wakes up to the bad news that she has lost her job.
Marion Cotillard plays Sandra. Sandra discovers that a vote was cast at the small warehouse that employed her. Her coworkers were forced to decide between declining a thousand euro bonuses or to have her terminated. They voted in favor of the bonus, though not without some politicking on behalf of an employee, who perpetuated the notion that if Sandra isn’t the one to get laid off, someone else will. This sort of premeditated action is enough for Sandra and a fellow co-worker to appeal the decision to their boss. He agrees to a revote. It’s Friday. The revote is for Monday. Sandra now has the weekend to convince her coworkers to decline the bonus. From the start she has three votes. She needs an additional six.
Those are the details as they stand ten minutes into Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s masterwork. Like so many of their films, the details pour ceaselessly like a geyser, but never does it have the overt density of feeling like exposition. Their stylistic flourishes prevent that. What they do is simply present a reality that’s so closely related to our own that we become active observers to the pangs of their characters. From a youth’s attempt to find a job in Rosetta to a couple’s series of poor decisions in L’Enfant, the directors touch upon humanity’s dark spots, plotting simple stories around ordinary people and their decisions of immediate consequences. They understand that the greatest dramas come out of human tragedy and experiences - there’s no need to gloss up something that is already unnervingly raw.
So it does come as a surprise that the director’s cast Marion Cotillard in the lead role. Not as if she doesn’t submit a superb performance - this is yet another highlight in the actress’ incredible series of performances. But the Dardennes emphasize the dirt and grime of reality and have constantly brought on non-actors to accentuate those details. Thankfully, Cotillard fits right in line with the naturalistic efforts of Émilie Dequenne in Rosetta or Arta Dobroshi in Lorna’s Silence. Part of what may have required Cotillard’s casting is the more inherently dramatic qualities required for the Sandra role. Sandra, who along with pleading with her colleagues to reject their bonus, is burdened by depression. It’s a difficult obstacle for her to cross to even make the initial effort of begging, and that hesitation is very delicately and convincingly handled by Cotillard.
Two Days, One Night remains everything that constitutes a Dardenne film. It is unlikely to convince any detractors, as it remains a film free of anything blatantly otherworldly. However, it is a film, like their others, of such harrowing human qualities that it penetrates the spirit. While contemporary cinema is defined by tent pole comic book blockbusters, here is a film of restrained grace that it’s a miracle that it exists. And for all intents and purposes, Two Days, One Night is a miracle of a film.