Review: Two Days, One Night (2014)

Two Days, One Night, Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne 

The Dardenne brothers offer a psychologically realistic portrait of a working-class Belgian woman in Two Days, One Night. Within this tense, restrained personal story, there is also a superb deconstruction of the corporate mentality, with its short-term labour contracts and dog-eat-dog lay offs.

It takes place, like their previous films, in a nondescript part of contemporary Belgium, dotted with industrial estates. Marion Cotillard is Sandra, and her weary, drawn face and skinny frame fill nearly every intimate frame. Her beauty is like a distant memory; she is bare-faced and fragile, in a performance of desperate, quiet dignity. Sandra exudes a constant nervous energy; that anxiety is always on the verge of spilling over into wild-eyed terror or hysteria.

With the support of her kind, long-suffering husband (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra has gone through a long spell of depression. She has just been deemed fit to return to work when a backstabbing foreman and the big boss, Dumont, decide she must be sacked. In the film's opening moments, we witness Sandra receiving a phone call - sobbing - and popping Xanax, something she does periodically as her emotions grow increasingly erratic.

The fresh humiliation, you see, is not that Sandra has been let go, but that her co-workers have been faced with a traumatic ballot vote: receive a 1000 euro bonus, or let Sandra keep her job and get nothing. They cannot have both. Unsurprisingly, the majority vote to jettison Sandra in exchange for their bonus - but when Sandra is able to postpone a new vote until Monday, she must spend the weekend convincing her co-workers to vote against their bonus and let her keep her job.

From that point, the Dardennes follow Sandra as she literally goes from door to door, asking for her fellows' vote. The camera is often in close-up or tagging closely behind its protagonist; the occasional wide shot feels jarring after so much intimacy.  She suffers rejection, buoyed up by some to be knocked back down again by others - it would be exhausting for anyone, but especially for a frail Sandra. She speaks to immigrants, other working-class families; some seem genuinely in need of extra cash, others merely greedy. The most illuminating element of the film are the responses to her plea; the tiny nuances and variations. We learn much from the workers' little evasions - their earnest lines of reasoning - or merely their living conditions. Financial condition is no barometer of one's willingness to help.

In this way, Two Days, One Night feels like an ode to compassion, or perhaps a swan song; and it is fiercely attached to the notion of workers' solidarity. Sandra and her husband's journey over the weekend, for all its harrowing moments, is wonderfully tender; their marriage is testament to all that is humane rather than self-serving. Relief comes not with success, per se, but with a sense of being connected to others. Over the course of the weekend, Sandra reaches some sense of wholeness; there is the vaguest suggestion that her alienation is of the Marxist sort. The corporate game, after all, is rigged - no matter who wins, someone will lose, and it will invariably be the common worker.

Although they are not manipulative filmmakers, the Dardennes transform the commonplace into the stuff of great tension and drama.  When, in the car with her husband, Sandra finally cracks a smile, it's almost startling. We realise she hasn't once smiled or laughed, as weighed down as she is by her troubles. It's a relief; like slivers of sunlight breaking through. There is something so richly edifying about the simplicity of her emotions, and the equilibrium they eventually reach. That Two Days, One Night can turn this tiny moment into something monumental is testament to what a profoundly sensitive film it is.

Now showing at Broadway Cinema Nottingham


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