Two Days, One Night, the new film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is a staggering examination of one woman’s desperate quest to save her job. It’s a film that touches on the raw nerve of survival in the face of impending downsizing, and it only bolsters matters when the lead is Marion Cotillard, who gives an astonishing performance.
Opening on Sandra (Cotillard) as she bakes a pie for her kids and tries to get a few moments of rest, she’s soon interrupted by a phone call from fellow employee Juliette (Catherine Salee). The opportunity to speak with her boss has arrived and Sandra hustles down, hoping to change the course of action rendered against her the previous day.
Not only is Sandra on the mend from a bout of depression, but she recently missed time at work which caused her managers to realize the work can be done without her. Sensing an opportunity to cut costs, a vote was taken with the 16 remaining employees, deciding whether Sandra should keep her employment or make room for a team bonus. Suggestions of verbal intimidation by her foreman (Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet) have provoked Sandra’s boss to take a second vote the following Monday. If the majority casts the same decision, Sandra will effectively be on the dole.
From that busy, foreboding opening ten minutes, Two Days, One Night becomes a tense observational as the camera rarely leaves Sandra’s shoulders as she and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) traverse the city, visiting each of the employees in a last ditch effort to win their support and, ultimately, her job.
Each knock on the door or telephone call brings a new presence in front of her. Sometimes the conversation goes well, but more often that not, it’s an awkward and strained exchange of glances, half apologies and unspoken emotions. Cotillard handles every flinch and occasional breakdown with such authenticity that we almost feel ashamed for prying on her. It doesn’t help that the film consistently frames her hidden behind a wall or half obscured by a door frame, strengthening the temporal displacement she undoubtedly feels for “begging,” as she calls it. It’s rare that a film elicits this type of tangible emotion from the viewer.
The Dardenne brothers have created a long career out of simple ideas that resonate with strong moral ambiguity. Their characters are proletariat, like Sandra, continually on the verge of shifting classes — and often not for the best. Their visual style is one of microscopic survey, as if the roving hand-held camera they often employ is an unknown person taking notes just off-screen of the main character. All these recognizable elements are present in Two Days, One Night and they add a suffocating sense of reality once again.
The Dardenne brothers have also been well rewarded, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival twice in ten years and seeing Marion Cotillard receive an Oscar nomination this year for her role here, so it’s hard to take another rave about their work too seriously. Yet, Two Days, One Night is their best work. With the unemployment rate at a seven year low here in the United States, the idea behind the film may not register with quite the traumatic experience it does in European quarters, but the frazzled and uncertain future Sandra faces is a universal worry for everyone without a hefty 401K. The real beauty lies in the wealth of her honesty and the way she confronts life afterwards.
Two Days, One Night is currently playing exclusively at the Angelika Plano.