Two Days, One Night

November 8, 2014
Marion Cotillard in 'Two Days, One Night' (2014)
Marion Cotillard in 'Two Days, One Night' (2014)

Two Days, One Night by Belgian filmmakers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes took out the major prize at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. It’s an indication of the socially conscious tastes of the jury that they should have preferred this slab of uncompromising realism to the unique experiment of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, or the irresistible charm of Ritesh Bhatra’s debut feature, The Lunchbox.

Perhaps the attraction for the judges was the way this story can be related to the sort of problems that are occuring everywhere in the so-called developed world. Jury President, Rachel Perkins, praised the movie for “its masterfully elegant storytelling, its dedication to a fiercely humanistic, super-realist worldview, its brave, essential commitment to community solidarity, and its celebration of a woman’s power and vitality.”

This is all true and worthy of respect, but there is a mechanical aspect to Two Days, One Night that made me feel as if I were marking off each scene, putting a tick or a cross on a scorecard.

The story and structure of the film is simplicity itself. Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard, has recently returned to work in a small factory in Liège that makes solar panels. She has been hospitalised with a bout of clinical depression and still needs handfuls of Xanax to keep her spirits up.

While she has been away the bosses have noticed they can make do with 16 employees rather than 17. To maintain profits in a dismal economic climate they offer their staff a stark choice: if Sandra returns to work they must forgo a 1,000 euro bonus. In a first ballot they have voted 14 – 2 that Sandra must go.

This is devastating to the fragile Sandra, but her friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée), has argued that the ballot was skewed by a foreman who provided the workers with misleading information. She has forced a new secret ballot on Monday morning, allowing Sandra one weekend to go door-knocking her colleagues, asking them to change their minds.

The loss of income would be catastrophic to Sandra and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) who are struggling to pay the mortgage on their apartment while bringing up two small children. Manu’s job at a restaurant is not sufficient to their needs, and it looks as if they would have to go back into public housing. Nevertheless it’s hard for Sandra to pluck up the courage to make these humilating house-calls, as she realises the other workers have their own financial hardships.

And so the quest begins. As we follow Sandra from one visit to the next we encounter every kind of reaction. Some of the group are blunt and dismissive, one is actually violent; another caves in with a surprising display of shame and sympathy. It is not an easy choice for any of them as they weigh up the consequences of not taking the bonus.

As the time for the ballot draws near the numbers are agonisingly close – as they always had to be for this slice-of-life saga to maintain any semblance of dramatic tension. The saving grace is the Dardennes’ ability to make everything seem so completely natural we might be watching a home movie. There is no embellishing music, no high-blown dialogue; only the relentless prying of the hand-held camera and a series of plausible exchanges between characters.

There is one brief musical interlude, when Manu, Sandra, and one of her workmates, Anne (Christelle Cornil), sing along to Van Morrison’s Gloria, playing on the car stereo. It seems that even the hyperrealist Dardennes can’t resist the viral compulsion that drives French-speaking directors to include a singalong. The most glaring recent example came in Valérie Donzelli’s Declaration of War (2012), a drama about a sick child that includes a scene in which the protagonists burst unexpectedly – and ridiculously – into song.

The song in Two Days, One Night is a way of leavening the tension of the story, after Anne has decided to leave her boorish husband because he demanded she take the bonus. Unlike most of her peers she makes a clear decision in Sandra’s favour, seeing this as a turning point in her own life.

Anne is, however, in the minority. Most of Sandra’s colleagues are so worried about keeping their jobs they never question the ethics of the ballot. For the bosses it’s simply a matter of economic necessity in lean times. There is neither malice nor sentiment in their approach. The moral dilemma falls squarely on the shoulders of the workers, as they decide whether to share the pain or take the money.

Lesser filmmakers would editorialise about the need for solidarity among the workers, but the Dardennes allow us to draw our own conclusions. Even when their characters act in a selfish manner we can understand their motivations. The Dardennes’ are humanists who allow people their complexity, not ideologues who believe the world can be divided into goodies and baddies. Or lifters and leaners, for that matter.

By the end of the film we can see that Sandra’s ordeal has taught her a lesson about human values and restored her shaky sense of self-worth. It’s an impressive performance by Marion Cotillard, who must be the biggest star ever to appear in a Dardenne production. In jeans and tank top, with her hair pulled back, she appears completely ordinary. There is rarely a scene when she doesn’t look like she might break into tears, but she soldiers on, disturbing everybody’s day of rest with an appeal to his or her conscience.

Despite its many virtues Two Days, One Night is cinematic health food: undeniably good for you, but lacking in flavour. It leaves one hungry for a little colour and drama, or at least for a camera that doesn’t follow the actors like a stray dog. The Dardennes are masters at what they do, but after one of their films I always feel an urge to watch a really terrible B-movie.

Two Days, One Night
Written & directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Christelle Cornil
Belgium/France/Italy, rated M, 91 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8th November, 2014.