Two Days, One Night (2014) — Image via cineart.be

Two Days, One Night

Directed by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (2014)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are nothing if not consistent. Since first attracting international attention with La Promesse (1996), the brothers and co-directors have unveiled a new feature film like clockwork every three years. All of these films are set in the Dardennes’ hometown of Seraing on the outskirts of Liège, Belgium; all are focused on the lives of those on, or at least always at risk of falling into, the margins of society; and all are concerned in some way with the kindling of empathy and human connection against the backdrop of economic hardship and emotional suffering.

Two Days, One Night (2014) — Image via cineart.beThese undeniably significant similarities between what are now seven films make it all the more impressive that the Dardennes’ plots have yet to fall into anything that might be described as a formula. Rather, as the brothers have continued to mine their familiar themes, they have created an oeuvre more concerned with depth than breadth. Each new story, shorn of any implied responsibility to convey some novel social or political concept, is allowed to stand on its own, its characters making their own uncertain ways forward. Meanwhile, the directors, while maintaining their signature naturalistic aesthetic, vary their approach by subtly incorporating elements of different genres. Thus, while their last film, The Kid With a Bike, could be seen as a sort of fairy tale, their latest, Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit), toys with the conventions of suspense.

Two Days, One Night (2014) — Image via cineart.beThe central scheme of Two Days, One Night, is set up within the first 15 minutes. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is preparing to return to her job at a solar panel factory after taking medical leave for depression when she learns that she is to be laid off. The factory owner, M. Dumont (Batiste Sornin) has told her coworkers that if she returns to work, he cannot afford to pay them their annual bonus, and he has asked them to vote on whether he should let her go or withhold the pay many of them have been counting on to meet their own needs. They have voted against her, but her friend Juliette (Catherine Salée) convinces Dumont to permit a revote, claiming the foreman, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), intimidated some people into voting for the bonus. With the encouragement of her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra spends the intervening weekend visiting each of her coworkers in turn, trying to convince them to vote in her favor.

Two Days, One Night (2014) — Image via cineart.beUnsurprisingly, the outcome of the vote remains up in the air throughout most of the film. While some of Sandra’s coworkers agree to change their votes so she can get her job back, others tell her that they cannot afford to give up their bonuses and will again vote against her. But as the film goes on, something interesting happens. Having set up a gripping suspense plot, the Dardennes allow the vote count itself to recede in importance. Slowly, Sandra’s quest to keep her job turns into a quest to affirm her existence by forcing her coworkers to acknowledge her as a human being — and by demonstrating her willingness to do the same for them. The transformation we see in Sandra, and in several of the others, ultimately matters more than how the vote actually turns out.

Cotillard has been nominated for an Oscar for her work in Two Days, One Night, and rightfully so, given her success at bringing Sandra’s subtle emotional metamorphosis to life. The biggest star the Dardennes have ever worked with, she has no trouble fitting in to their idiom, in which actions have significances that may not be immediately apparent and expressions often convey as much as, if not more than, words. Other standouts include Dardenne regular Rongione as the ever-supportive Manu and Christelle Cornil as Anne, the coworker who has the most significant reaction to Sandra’s predicament. All told, Two Days, One Night, is a pleasure to watch, a pleasure to ponder afterward, and a worthy addition to the Dardenne canon.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.