Watching Two Days, One Night I was not only struck by its magnificence but at the same time trying to remember the last film I had seen that was as good. After a suitable period of brain-racking it turns out that it was The Kid on a Bike, the last film from the Dardenne brothers back in 2011.
Although there are two of them it is difficult to think of them as anything other than a single entity since they co-write and co-direct. Even so, I cannot think of a better contemporary filmmaker. I had an online discussion with a friend who suggested Jacques Audiard and she may have a point; but if they ever go head to head the Dardennes – Jean-Pierre and Luc – have the numbers to take him.
Their films are rooted in the traditions of European social realism, there are clear nods to The 400 Blows and The Bicycle Thieves in The Kid on a Bike. But the vibrancy of the Dardennes’ work, as compared to the fustiness of Ken Loach, makes this a living tradition. The ever-present subtext of Two Days, One Night is the new age of economic austerity and its impact on its innocent victims.
This film is full of people who are barely getting by; a cast who rely on second jobs and the black economy just to make ends meet. One of these is Sandra (Marion Cotillard) who has been off work with depression; she and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and their kids are just keeping their heads above water.
The factory owner takes advantage of Sandra’s illness. The workforce have been managing one person down so he offers them a Sophie’s Choice; they can each have a 1000 Euro bonus, but only if they agree that Sandra should be sacked.
The film begins on a Friday after they have voted for the bonus. A sympathetic colleague forces Sandra to speak up and the boss agrees the ballot will be re-run on Monday. Sandra has the weekend – two days and one night – to get nine of her sixteen colleagues to vote for her job but lose their bonus.
The realist influences on this film seem closer to The Bicycle Thieves again where a job becomes a metaphor for dignity, status, self-esteem and basic existence. The Dardennes have also described the film as a western which isn’t obviously apparent until you realise her desperate visits to her colleagues strongly echo those of Gary Cooper as he tries to form a posse in High Noon.
The film pits worker against worker for their own survival while the owners smugly sit back, moving people around like pawns on a chessboard to suit their whims. The factory owner has no interest in taking Sandra back – as one of her colleagues points out, why would he when the work is being done with one worker less – but the onus of the sacking is put on her colleagues. The implication too is that others will follow so this is a not very subtle process of intimidation to cow the workers.
Wisely the Dardennes choose not to make Sandra some kind of plaster saint. This is a nuanced characterisation; there are times when you doubt whether she is in fact ready to go to work. The reality is she is being forced back for reasons of economic survival in the face of her obvious mental health issues.
Speaking of plaster saints, the religious symbolism which highlights the Dardennes’ work is apparent here too. There are constant themes of sacrifice and one of her colleagues even agrees to support her because God would want him to.
It’s a rounded story that does not consider Sandra in isolation; the film feels as much for her colleagues as it does for her, their dilemmas are as acute as hers. This is a genuine piece of working class theatre.
Cotillard as Sandra is simply superb. There is no sense of a big star slumming it in an indie film, she has completely submerged herself in this character. The performance is subtle, affecting, totally naturalistic, and extremely touching. If it doesn’t actually move you to tears the ending will at the very least bring a lump to the throat.
It is not a one woman show however. Rongione gives magnificent support as Manu, her husband. He has lived through Sandra’s illness, he has supported her, and he has done what many men would not. It is only appropriate that he has agency in the outcome and the Dardennes give him the chance to shine.
A superb piece of film making. It may be another couple of years before I see something as good but if I have to wait for the muse to strike the Dardennes then so be it.