Directed by: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; Runtime: 95 minutes
The value of human life sounds like a rather broad, obvious theme, but rarely do films tackle the literal and morally complex facets of it, the rational and emotional sacrifices ordinary people are willing to make -- and not -- for the benefit of another person. Two Days, One Night, the latest film from The Kid with a Bike directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, approaches that concept in an incredibly direct fashion, focused on a depressed woman coping with her own self-worth who must convince co-workers she's valuable enough to stay employed at their job in lieu of much-needed pay increases. Driven by a phenomenal performance from Marion Cotillard, the Dardenne Brothers' frank voyeuristic perspective follows her character, Sandra, as she bravely pursues support over the course of a weekend, highlighting the personal turmoil involved in asking others to care for her needs more than they care for their own dire situations. While powerful in premise and raw execution, the film's rash usage of mental instability complicates its commentary on adversity and morale, for better and for worse.
Having recently overcome a bout with depression that kept her away from her job at a solar-panel construction factory, wife and mother Sandra (Cotillard) has finally reached a point where she's ready to abandon her medication and return to work. All that changes at the beginning of her weekend, though, when she's informed by one of her closest co-workers that the company has taken a vote, electing to accept bonuses to their salaries in exchange for letting her go and upping their hours. She's also notified that a second, secret vote on the matter will be held on the following Monday morning in response to some charges of manipulation against the company's higher-ups, giving Sandra the weekend to track down the voters and plead her case for keeping her necessary job. With the support of her already patient husband (Fabrizio Rongione) and armed with water and medication, she embarks on what's sure to be a draining endeavor, considering the circumstances.
Unassuming yet smartly-composed dramatic suspense gets Two Days, One Night face-to-face with its heavy thematic potential, exploring different levels of desperation through Sandra's systematic pleas to her co-workers as the time ticks down to the second vote. Sandra losing her job is obviously a significant blow to her family, but her journeys across town quickly point out that everyone's struggling to make ends meet, whether it's refurbishing goods to pay for the needs of children or rebounding from a divorce. What starts with the headlong motivation to win influence from the people who voted against Sandra evolves into a distressing portrayal of what's to be lost, the working-class people who will continue to suffer, if the new vote overturns the decision. Each individual story is handled unpretentiously and enriched by little details before Sandra instigates her real-talk conversations, whether it's in the type of home she's visiting or the person who initially answers the door and points Sandra to her next target. The fluctuation of emotion between each one, the victories and defeats following those diverse exchanges, shapes the experience into a tense expressive rollercoaster ... intentionally repetitive and far-fetched in design as it may be.
Marion Cotillard's nuanced performance takes great strides towards shaping the deliberate tempo of Two Days, One Night, given how the film focuses on Sandra's wavering resolve from location to location. The weight of the situation can be seen in subtle changes of her body language during her lengthy walks between stops, plainly visible in her shifts from depressive fatalism to desperate anxiety and back again upon arriving at each doorstep. Sandra doesn't have much of a defense to their decision given her leave of absence, having only her potential hardship and hearsay of bias against her as a bargaining chip, so observing how she responds to the co-workers' explanations becomes the heart and soul of the experience. Cotillard's understated depiction of anxiety and depression becomes absorbing to watch as she repeatedly contemplates a full retreat back to her bed, the burden of cornering people into a moral dilemma dragging her down each time. Authentic performances from the actors playing her co-workers are vital, but this is all about embodying a reflection of Sandra's various states, realized brilliantly by Cotillard.
Since she's traveling around pleading for others to make a different judgment call on her, Two Days, One Night instinctively puts us in the uncomfortable position of also evaluating Sandra on her merits and readiness, constantly asking whether she's really ready to return to the workforce and justify a reversal of the decision. A coarse but invigorating portrayal of inner strength emerges as she struggles to keep her composure amid her issues, where the synergy between Sandra and her diverse co-workers would've expressed plenty about the complexity of deciding a person's fate had the film simply continued on that course. Developments later on alter that perspective, though, proving the concerns about her stability might be merited and changing the conversation that The Dardennes are having about this wife/mother. Elevated dramatics hinged on Sandra's worsening condition undermine the strengths of their restrained storytelling methods and how they're approaching certain themes, replaced with doubt over both the likelihood of the turn of events and towards her capacity to cope, ringing a bell that cannot be unrung.
Unsurprisingly, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne don't provide a clear-cut outlook on the tough questions they raise with this added context in their emotionally involved last act, instead letting the outcome of Sandra's exhaustive campaigning and the second ballot speak for themselves. A stern, balanced portrayal of human sympathy and pragmatism takes shape at the end of Two Days, One Night that ultimately puts her on the spot, hanging on her decision of what to do next after being armed with several days of exploring the attitudes of her co-workers. Sandra's arrival in this position of agency becomes one of the film's thought-provoking high points, opening the door for it to posit a clear, unencumbered final impression on the value of other people, one that feels cohesive based on her traumatic internal experiences and appropriately hopeful about the virtues of determination and strength of will. The paths she walks to get there are rocky, at times needlessly self-inflicted and harmful to her progress, but ultimately rewarding once The Dardennes reveal where she's headed now.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 9/01/2015