Directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne.
Starring: Marion Cotillard (Sandra), Fabrizio Rongione (Manu), Pili Groyne (Estelle), Simon Caudry (Maxime), Catherine Salée (Juliette), Batiste Sornin (M. Dumont), Alain Eloy (Willy), Myriem Akeddiou (Mireille), Fabienne Sciascia (Nadine), Timur Magomedgadzhiev (Timur), Hicham Slaoui (Hicham), Philippe Jeusette (Yvon), Yohan Zimmer (Jérôme), Christelle Cornil (Anne), Laurent Caron (Julien), Franck Laisné (Dominique), Serge Koto (Alphonse), Morgan Marinne (Charly), Gianni La Rocca (Robert), Ben Hamidou (Kader), Carl Jadot (Miguel), Olivier Gourmet (Jean-Marc).
The Dardenne brothers are perhaps the most consistent directors in the world right now. Every three years since 1996 when they made their debut, La Promesse, they return with another film, which almost wins a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and almost always deserves to. They are the best of the neo-realists (neo-neo-realists?) working right now, and while many of their films are similar, they are each unique in their own way. Their last two films before Two Days, One Night played with genre a little bit – Lorna's Silence (2008) was a kind of film noir, The Kid with the Bike (2011) a kind of fairy tale. Two Days, One Night doesn’t do that – it isn’t a genre film in any way – and many will compare it to their Palme D'or Winning Rosetta (1999) – as both are about women desperate to work – but the two films share only this superficial similarity.
The new film stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, who has worked at a factory building solar panels for years, but is now on the brink of being fired. She has been on medical leave recently – because of depression – and although she is ready to return, her boss may not want her. He has held a vote among the 16 other workers where they have to choose between keeping Sandra as an employee, or receiving their annual bonus – 1,000 Euros. The boss says that he cannot afford both. Its Friday, and the vote has come in 14-2 for the bonus – against Sandra. But apparently, there may have been some underhanded dealings, so the boss agrees to hold a new vote on Monday morning. This gives Sandra the weekend – and she goes around to see each one of her co-workers, and make her case for keeping her around.
With the film, the Dardennes have set themselves some interesting narrative traps that they somehow have to avoid. In many respects, this is a movie that repeats the same scene over and over again – Sandra goes to her co-worker by knocking on her door, explaining the situation (the same way), and asking for her vote. The scene only changes when the co-worker gets to respond. To the Dardennes credit, even though some agree to vote for Sandra, and some refuse, there really is only one guy who comes across as an asshole. The rest of the people who vote against Sandra are in need of their money – they feel sorry for her, and her children that she will not be able to support with her job – but they have kids of their own, or a divorce to get through, or a spouse without a job, or are stuck working another job on the weekend as it is to make ends meet. The movie is about worker solidarity to be sure – but also about the limits of that solidarity. The movie doesn’t mention the economic collapse – that has hit Europe even harder than North America – because it doesn’t need to. All of these people are struggling just to make ends meet even with a full time job. The also set themselves a trap in the ending – because no matter what they choose, there is a danger that it will play like a cliché – either in sentimental triumph or sentimental defeat. The way the Dardennes avoid that trap is masterful – and turns the movie around on its lead character in an interesting way, but doesn’t quite give an answer.
As with all of the Dardennes film, the lead performance is key to the whole movie. They often follow their characters, looking directly at their heads, as a way to get inside. Cotillard is inarguably the biggest star they have worked with – but she delivers on of her best performances – a more natural performance than ever before, that works perfectly in the Dardennes world. We feel sympathy for Sandra – but Cotillard doesn’t always make that easy. She is mired in depression – and although she has an ever supportive husband (one of the undercurrents of the movie is their relationship – which is being tested) – and does things that are somewhat self-destructive. Yet we feel for her anyway – because she seems so real.
That is the key to all of the Dardennes movie – that they don’t stray too far from reality. The characters are not always likable – but they are always real. Two Days, One Night is a difficult film to watch in many ways – Sandra is essentially setting herself up for embarrassment over and over and over again – but she dives in anyway. So do the Dardennes. That is why they are among the most consistent filmmakers in the world right now.