Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, make punchy, contemporary, socially aware films—simple on the surface but alive with compassion and wisdom. As filmmakers, the Dardennes are never less than reliable, yet still, Two Days, One Night feels like one of their best, up there with The Child or Rosetta in its cast-iron sense of purpose, searing relevance and understanding of how tough it is for all of us, especially the less well-off, to do the right thing in our everyday lives.
It features a career-high performance from Oscar winner Marion Cotillard—by far the Dardennes’ starriest casting to date—and has a starting-gun premise: A young mother, Sandra (Cotillard), recently taking time off work for depression, is made redundant by a small factory that manufactures solar panels. In her absence, 14 of her 16 colleagues vote to take their bonuses rather than let her keep her job. But willed into action by a supportive husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra persuades her boss to give her one last chance and host a second round of voting two days later. Will she be able to save her job by knocking on doors over the weekend to persuade her colleagues to support her?
What follows could so easily feel repetitive or like a perfunctory tour of Belgium’s working class as, one by one, we meet these 16 colleagues and their families, hovering on their doorsteps or in their homes. But in the hands of the directors, the repetition—the question, “Will you vote for me?”—allows us to see the same situation from a new perspective. It also perfectly suits the Dardennes’ unobtrusive, agile shooting style as they dash with Sandra from home to home. With each encounter, the vote shifts from an abstract idea into an opinion that’s attached to a life, to a family, to a need to pay for a child’s education, to settle the gas bill or, in one case, to buy a new patio. Most importantly, the film involves us: It draws us into the debate, makes us complicit, demands that we have an opinion and then upends that same opinion a few minutes later. It’s engaging and rousing.
Sandra is tired and deflated; it seems her whole body is ready to crumple up. The physical side of the performance is handled brilliantly by Cotillard, who shows Sandra almost losing the power of speech, unable to get the words out of her mouth. The Dardennes show the terror involved in confrontation and taking a stand. We witness a woman fighting not only for her job but in some ways for her life: “I don’t exist, I’m nothing, nothing at all,” she says.
Two Days, One Night is also a portrait of love and friendship, and the Dardennes subtly sketch the relationship between Sandra and Manu, as well her friendship with a colleague. This is political drama (with the smallest of p’s) at its finest and most humane, gently ingraining ideas about empowerment, and taking a stand about how we organize our societies. There are no heroes or villains here; everybody is simply trying to get by. After spending Two Days, One Night in the company of Sandra, you’ll be punching the air with pride.