If people watch Two Days, One Night, they’ll probably recognize one face and you’ll hear something similar to the following: “That’s the girl from Inception and the Dark Knight Rises right?” The more observant viewer might say something like: “Isn’t that Marion Cotillard?” And they would be right on either of these accounts and yet the Dardenne Brothers (who the average viewer, unfortunately, might not know), take Ms. Cotillard and place her in a completely different type of role altogether. They take an A-List Hollywood star and drop her in the every day, lower class world that the brothers themselves came out of. In fact, the story and most of their stories are set in Seraing, a French-speaking area of Belgium that is known for industry.
They have an immense fascination in simple people just trying to make ends meet. Most of their stories have mundane narratives like The Kid with a Bike (2011), and Two Days, One Night is little different in that respect. It’s so basic in conception and yet in this banal and rough-edged world, the Dardennes find immense beauty.
Our chief subject is Sandra, a young woman who is married has two kids and has just battled her way back from depression. Undoubtedly it was a tough road, but she is obviously resilient and ready to get back to work. After all her family needs the money because her husband only works at a restaurant. But her whole reality is changed in a matter of minutes when she learns she will be laid off. Her company can either keep her on or give all their other employees bonuses. The majority took the bonus over Sandra. Her work friend Juliette buys her another ballot for the following Monday, so Sandra has a few days to try and plead her case. But she’s done fighting. She’s tired and defeated before she begins. It’s her husband Manu who urges her forward and reluctantly Sandra follows through.
This is the core of the film as Sandra goes from home to home, ringing doorbells, and talking with the people hidden away in their homes. They are no longer her faceless colleagues, but soon they become living, breathing people. Just like Sandra, they have a personal stake in this decision. Maybe it’s to pay for a daughter’s schooling, remodeling a home, or trying to stay afloat as a single parent. There are those who are simply fearful of being laid off and those who hope that Sandra will succeed while admitting they’ll vote for the bonus. They all seem like generally legitimate responses, and Sandra knows that just as we do, but she tries anyway, at least to talk with them–get them to see her side. Because this decision has major repercussions, and it’s not just occurring in a vacuum.
Things are teetering dangerously on the edge of equilibrium for everyone involved because everyone seems to be between a rock and a hard place. And there’s no difference between Marion Cotillard and all these other unknown actors. They’re all bracing themselves for sinking in the same boat.
In a way I found myself comparing this film to the courtroom drama 12 Angry Men because in a similar manner Sandra must go about trying to convince her colleagues to change their minds, and talk them out of their convictions. It’s a difficult task, and this film speaks to the logic and rationale that dictate human decisions. There are individuals all across the board from those who only are looking out for themselves. Is it too hypocritical to call them selfish? It’s hard to know. There are those who want to good, but just cannot, and finally those who stand by Sandra, because they feel it is the right thing to do. The most painful of these interactions occur with those colleagues, who are so conflicted inside. You can see the situation at hand tearing them apart.
Other directors would be terrified of such a film, looking to fill slow moments with some kind of heightened state of action. The Dardennes are content with having their actors rock out to Them’s “Gloria” after a long day. And true, there are many moments of tension and even conflict, but most of this film is about people talking, mirroring the rhythms of real life. The camera is constantly by Sandra’s side, peering at her face, and staying on her hip. Her face has to carry some scenes at times, and it does so wonderfully. Really, this is a film that displays her resilience, grit, and determination to push forward. It had the potential to be either feel-good drama or a tragic story, but it finds a beautiful middle ground. Sandra comes out an undisputed winner, just not in the way that she expected.