Two Days, One Night

Nourishing, plain-spoken, and impossibly resonant, Two Days, One Night is a pared-down, socialist epic in miniature; a triumphant drama about workplace injustice, bullyboy tactics, and rallying self-worth that saddens as it informs. Scruffy, scrappy, and socially aware, it’s a working-class tale that’s as straightforward as a fired bullet with an exit wound the size of a grapefruit.

After a medical leave during which she was treated for depression, Sandra (Marion Cotillard, Midnight in ParisContagion, Rust and Bone) has returned to work to discover that the company has offered her co-workers a choice: if she is laid off, they will receive the €1,000 bonuses they have long been promised; if they give them up, she can keep her job. A vote has already been held among the 16 members of Sandra’s work team, but her boss agrees to a second ballot, giving Sandra a weekend – two days, one night – to persuade a majority of her colleagues to make a painful sacrifice on her behalf.

Two Days, One Night is a gravitational showcase for one of Cotillard’s finest performances. Desperate, downtrodden, grasping at each shred of hope, Cotillard oozes sadness from the seams, looking dwindled and drained, leached of allure by the unkind pallor of the lighting. Her shoulders slumped, her gait heavy, her eyes weary, Cotillard – who won an Oscar playing Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose – is a luminous pill-popping heroine. With her quiet air of embarrassment tinged with pride, Cotillard moves past naturalism into something hard to describe and impossible to doubt.

Like Sandra, the audience must absorb the emotional impact of each conversation. Most begin politely, but after the initial greetings, the reactions to Sandra’s pleas vary wildly. A man bursts into tears. A fistfight breaks out. A marriage comes undone. A blunt refusal is followed by a gracious offer. Much of the film relies on Cotillard’s jittery expressions as she veers from tentatively hopeful to despondent and back again, reflecting the ever-changing stability of job security among the lower classes. What especially matters is her willingness to conspire in writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s plea for justice.

Enriched by signature qualities – the nonjudgmental gaze, the ultra-naturalistic style – that have always distinguished the Belgian brothers’ fine body of work, Two Days, One Night balances the trademark Dardennes social conscience with a conceit that plays out almost like a ticking-clock thriller, yet maintains an organic sensibility. If it just misses the utter anguish of L’enfant, Two Days, One Night is up there with Rosetta or The Son in its cast-iron purpose, taking us into the ecosystem of need.

Two Days, One Night delivers its message with clear-eyed compassion, rooted in a staggering sense of solidarity, a consciousness of community that lies at the heart of the Dardennes’ creative philosophy. Its directors once again find a richness of human experience that dwarfs most films made on an epic canvas. In a series of conversations, they offer up a microcosm of an entire population contingent, each vignette a universe all to itself. A Darwinian dissection of corporate politics and a soaring hymn to service and connection, Two Days, One Night makes us complicit in the moral crossroads, demands an opinion, and then upends that same opinion a few minutes later.

Bristling with peril and alive to every flicker of human decency, Two Days, One Night is tough, thoughtful, and truthful, a rare film of unforced simplicity that will stick with you for a long time. Paced like a joke, but playing like a prayer, it’s so purely humane that it makes most attempts at audience uplift look crass and calculated by comparison.

As hugely admirable and superbly composed as we have come to expect from the Dardennes, Two Days, One Night is nothing provocative and nothing new in their canon, and the premise feels more manufactured for allegorical reasons than their previous features. There are unnecessary melodramatic hiccups in the second half that disturb the deceptively taut, honed narrative, perhaps the most sculpted screenplay of the Dardennes’ careers.

But the perfectly judged conclusion accomplishes a similar feat to 2013’s Cotillard-starring Cannes contender The Immigrant: the Dardennes embrace a somersault as their dismount, closing off a broken woman’s journey back to herself. It reinforces a battered, hard-won sense of optimism and an unlikely vision of hope while side-stepping a happy ending that would have rung entirely false. Instead, Two Days, One Night retains the ambiguity of an ethical thought experiment, the interpretive open-endedness of a parable, and the limpid clarity of a folk ballad.

The chasm of the wealth gap and the slow destruction of the middle class should matter to all citizens, the principle of “less is more” to all filmmakers. If Two Days, One Night is the most effective vehicle in months to bring home both lessons simultaneously, so be it. What’s even more certain, with every one of Cotillard’s performances, is that we’re looking at a legendary actress emerging before our eyes.

3/4

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