A woman trekking door-to-door, asking her colleagues to forgo their bonuses so she can keep her job, hardly seems like the sort of story that could sustain 90 minutes. But Two Days, One Night offers emotionally riveting, ticking-clock sociological suspense, powered by compelling themes and a commanding turn from Marion Cotillard.
It helps that sibling Belgian writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne stock the story with several surprises and, more importantly, a sweepingly sympathetic point of view. Two Days is fraught with an underlying fear that you could be so swiftly perceived as expendable by those with whom you spend a third of your life. It’s a closer, deeper and unkinder cut than any disconnected corporate culling could ever be. But the Dardennes never wag fingers at those choosing cash over camaraderie. Although the film is in subtitled French, its respect for those who wade in shark-infested waters of the modern-day working class is universally understandable.
Sandra (Cotillard) works the line at a small solar panel-manufacturing company. As the film opens, she learns her co-workers have made a choice. Given the alternative of losing bonuses some of them have already spent, Sandra’s co-workers have voted to eliminate her position. The gut-punch leaves this married mother of two gulping for air simply to stay upright; she’s been on the dole before and it nearly broke her.
Certainly, Sandra seems too fragile to mount any retaliation. However, her friends and her chain-restaurant chef husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), encourage her to strike back, especially once it’s suggested a supervisor’s tactics of intimidation and misinformation influenced the vote. The company’s owner allows Sandra a Monday-morning revote, giving her the titular timeframe to stay her economic execution.
The brunt of Two Days follows Sandra’s attempt to sway a majority of the votes in her favor. A handful of co-workers avoid or ignore her. Others simply aren’t home when she rings their doorbell. She happens upon several by chance. Those to whom Sandra speaks offer an unpredictable mixed bag of empathy and enmity. Some agree to swing their vote her way, but could just as easily swing back come Monday. Along the way, we also learn about why some of Sandra’s co-workers believe her to be a liability, instances in which she may have taken one (or more) for the team in the past, and unexpectedly persistent rifts at home in her relationship with Manu.
The Dardennes create a gradual creep of uncertainty and tension that becomes cumulatively overwhelming; you’ll be so invested that a particularly shocking second-act turn may have you clinching your first and quietly shouting “No!” Thankfully, they’re fueled not by screws-turning cruelty but humane compassion.
Our rooting interest in Sandra never wavers, especially as it becomes clear that pity is the last thing she wants. This is as much a campaign to maintain personal dignity, integrity and honor as much as it is to fight for her family’s financial livelihood. However, the Dardennes are also cautious to show us how some of her colleagues work two jobs out of necessity, or how losing their bonus could put long-beloved hobbies, dreams and passions at risk for them or their kids. Although some of her peers may have never succumbed to poverty, Sandra is far from the only one with opportunity costs, and the Dardennes draw engrossing sketches of even their most minor characters. (As Two Days is told almost entirely without music, it also speaks to the palpable gravity each actor gives to their role in the story’s conceit.)
Through it all, Cotillard beams in a performance that is absolutely deserving of its Academy Award nomination. You sense the risk the Dardennes took in casting a glamorous, gorgeous Oscar-winning movie star as an everywoman. But it pays off much as it did for Steven Soderbergh and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, albeit with less seriocomically confident can-do pluck.
In Sandra, the usually luminous Cotillard gives us a woman whose light teeters on extinction. She’s not just trying to keep her job; she’s trying to find existential validation of her worth, value and purpose. As her weekend grinds on, Cotillard alternates between workaday perseverance and chafing against the bootstraps with which she knows she must lift herself up. By turns, Cotillard shows us the resignation, recommitment and rediscovery in Sandra’s eyes. But there is never resentment, which creates the film’s dramatic linchpin and fuels its immensely satisfying conclusion.
As a social drama with real sting, Two Days, One Night is a fascinating field study of life on the financial fringes of the working class and one of 2014’s very best films.