By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist May 20, 2014 at 2:13PM
An unfeasibly gripping social realist parable that provides a gravitational showcase for one of Marion Cotillard's finest performances (and yes, we know that's saying something), the Dardenne brothers' "Two Days, One Night" sees the two-time Palme d'Or winners put in a serious bid for a third (though probably, Cannes rules being what they are, a Best Actress trophy for Cotillard is more likely). It’s a deeply lovable film, satisfying, nourishing and accessible, and bar the odd stumble toward melodrama (more on that later) we were completely immersed in its plain-spoken yet impossibly resonant rhythms practically from the first frame.
A great deal of that is Cotillard—her character is in nearly every single shot, and hers is inarguably the point of view of the film throughout, making it a riveting performance in a film that is riveted to her. But perhaps the greatest achievement is in how brilliantly the film balances the trademark Dardennes social conscience with a conceit that plays out almost like a ticking-clock thriller, as well as being a deeply felt character study, at the same time as it operates on at least two metaphorical levels in parallel at any one point. Casting the biggest name star they’ve ever worked with, who herself happens to be one of the finest actresses of her generation enjoying an extraordinarily impressive run of performances, and writing perhaps the most focused and sculpted screenplay of their illustrious careers, Jean-Pierre and Luc turn in a film that may well be their richest. At 63 and 60, respectively, it feels like they crested the peak of their powers a while ago, only to discover a higher summit to conquer, on top of which “Two Days, One Night” has now planted their flag.
As the film begins, Sandra (Cotillard), a wife and mother of two living in straitened circumstances in an economically depressed town, has slipped back into the depression from which she had ostensibly recovered, following the news that she has lost her job. Unemployment and potentially a return to social housing beckons for her family. In fact, the day before, she had been voted out of the company by her co-workers who were offered the choice of retaining her, or retaining their €1000 bonuses. An ally convinces her that the foreman had pressured some of her colleagues into voting her out, and when they confront the boss he agrees that they can hold a new secret ballot on Monday morning. Sandra therefore has the weekend to convince a majority to sacrifice their bonuses in order to save her job.
What then unfolds is an almost epic journey from house to house to meet each of them face to face, providing snapshots of the lives and attitudes of her co-workers, many of whom are in just as perilous a situation as she. It’s a portrait of a moral dilemma considered from every conceivable angle and not just on the part of those she’s visiting—Sandra, still fragile herself, can only negotiate with difficulty the oceanic swallowing of pride necessary to, essentially, beg for her livelihood. With difficulty, and Xanax.
The responses to her entreaties vary wildly from positive and sympathetic to outright violent, but a few insightful similarities remain. Almost everyone’s first question is “how is everyone else voting?” just as almost everyone’s response to Sandra's pointing out how it's not her fault that the boss put her job up against their bonuses is “Mine neither.” And there’s a hopelessness to the way they all simply accept the fact the injustice, really the barbarity of pitting workers’ self interest against their fellow-feeling in an effort to rationalize the company's bottom line. No one once suggests protesting the unfairness of it; it seems like they might as well shout at the moon to change its phase. And so, seamlessly and always within the context of this tense, ever evolving story, the film examines truly meaty moral themes of herd mentality, manipulation, pity, guilt, remorse, empathy, peer pressure and so on, at the same time as becoming an allegory for socialism, worker’s rights and corporate corruption and a heartfelt plea to recognize the humanity of others.
It’s true that the whole having-to-go-and-present-a-moral-dilemma-to-a-disparate-group-of-people premise does feel less organic than a typical Dardennes set up and more manufactured for those allegorical purposes, but that's not so much a criticism as an observation. In fact it’s a film with which we could find exactly two, and only two, things wrong. Without wishing to spoil, there is a section later on in the story when the story’s resolute believability falters and the actions and reactions of Sandra and one other character feel overtly manipulated for [over] dramatic effect. It is a shame, because the film is easily compelling enough without these extra turns of the screw.
Those hiccups in the flow of this deceptively taut, honed narrative would have ruined our enjoyment more, however, if they hadn’t been superseded by an ending that is simply perfection. Accomplishing a similar feat to last years Cotillard-starring Cannes contender “The Immigrant” the Dardennes here pull off an astonishingly satisfying somersault as their dismount, a simple moment in which we suddenly realize that the film we’ve been enjoying as a multi-layered ethical parable to that point was in fact also something much simpler and more human all along: the story of a broken woman’s journey back to herself. It’s nothing as simplistic as a happy ending, but it couldn’t be more uplifting and affecting, and we left the theater with our hearts nearly bursting. [A]