NYFF 2014: Two Days, One Night
Review by Zachary Shevich
Two Days, One Night asks Marion Cotillard’s Sandra to undertake the painful task of asking acquaintances to sacrifice their comfort for her benefit. The film, which is the latest from The Kid with a Bike filmmakers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, is about a woman who’s been fired from her job but must convince a majority of her co-workers to forfeit a 1000-Euro bonus, which will allow her to keep her job.
Prior to the events of the film, Sandra’s 16 co-workers voted 14-2 in favor of their bonuses; however, the company foreman intimidated them, warning that if they didn’t vote to have Sandra fired they would put themselves at risk of being laid off. But at the film’s onset, Sandra’s boss hesitantly agrees for a new, secret ballot to go out at work on Monday morning. Over the course of a weekend, Sandra visits each of her co-workers individually to plead for her job back while attempting to keep her dignity and mental health intact.
The strength of this new Dardenne Brothers film is in the simplicity of its plot structure, and the windows into a person’s character that the story provides. Sandra approaches her co-workers with uneasiness. As much as she needs to keep her job, she knows it’s not easy to ask anyone to give up 1000 Euros – a significant amount to these people. Her conversations are tense, as both sides attempt to get their point of view across. “Put yourself in my shoes,” Sandra will say to one co-worker, only for another co-worker to say the same thing to her later on. The beauty in Two Days, One Night is that these statements are equally applicable to both parties.
The earnestness with which the characters in Two Days, One Night speak helps to reveal aspects of their personalities. It’s not so much about selflessness as it is situational selflessness, and in the Dardennes’ script these scenes become verbal ping-pong matches fraught with consequence. The conflicted nature of Sandra’s situation is depicted beautifully in Marion Cotillard’s delicate performance. Sandra is a woman who has issues overcoming her own depression. Despite her husband’s support and the Xanax she pops, the difficulty of these interactions take their toll over the course of Two Days, One Night. The Dardenne Brothers smartly allow some interactions to provide Sandra with encouragement, but many are a struggle for a woman dealing with anxiety, and some particularly hostile exchanges incite panic attacks.
In their considerate characterization of Sandra, Cotillard and the Dardennes have created an authentic representation of the stress that stems from depression, while not simply exploiting the disease for melodrama. The Dardennes’ handheld camera techniques help create the feeling of living in the uncomfortable moments with Sandra as she struggles through her socially awkward mission. The unguarded approach implemented by Cotillard makes Sandra a deeply empathetic character. It’s extremely thoughtful acting, a very honest performance that may be the best work of the French actress’ career.
The beauty in the construction of Two Days, One Night is by developing a simple format around which to build the story, the film naturally uncovers subject matter that generates tension and resonates. The actors inhabit fully realized characters who are able to express their personal views sympathetically, making this a rare film with no unrelatable characters — only ones less deserving of sympathy. The new Dardenne Brothers film is a clever, heartfelt project that is compassionate with compelling insights on human behavior.