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Two Days, One Night – Review


Release Date: 22 August 2014
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne - Luc Dardenne
Writer: Jean-Pierre Dardenne - Luc Dardenne
Cast: Marion Cotillard - Fabrizio Rongione - Pili Groyne



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Posted December 16, 2014 by

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Two Days, One Night Review:

I’ve heard people say that working as an air traffic controller is among the most stressful jobs in the world. I’ve always assumed that any disaster-related field – police, emergency room, Fox TV programming – must also rank high on the stress-meter. But if you’re putting together a list of jobs that create superhuman anxiety on a constant basis, I think being the lead actress in a Dardenne brothers’ movie would have to be right up there at the top.

Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have achieved some pretty remarkable results since they burst on the scene with La Promesse in 1996. One of their main artistic strategies is to put the camera right in the face of their protagonist, and leave it there no matter what happens. And though I don’t mean to imply that the Dardennes take a relaxed, laid-back approach in their movies which focus on male leads, there is something so all-consuming about their portraits of women that make those movies difficult to watch. Difficult and totally riveting.

I don’t think I will ever get the haunted visage of Emilie Dequenne, teen-age star of Rosetta (1999), out of my mind. And now I suspect it will be a while before Marion Cotillard’s Sandra from Two days, One Night fades from memory. Like most Dardenne characters, whether male or female, Sandra is a regular, working-class person. There is nothing particularly special about her other than her natural survival instincts. The Dardennes are about as good as it gets when it comes to taking such regular characters and putting them in situations which test that instinct.

The premise of Two Days, One Night is excellent. Sandra, a part-time worker for a small company making solar panels, has recently taken a leave of absence due to a bout with depression. Now she is eager to get back to a daily routine. Plus, the money comes in very handy. But in the opening scene, she learns that her fellow workers have been given a choice. Sandra can come back to work, but only if they forego their year-end bonuses. The workers have voted 14-2 in favor of the bonuses. This sets the stage for a frantic weekend in which Sandra and her supportive husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) pay visits to all of the “no” votes in an attempt to get them to change their minds.

The premise allows for a wide range of emotions. Sandra’s request is met with compassion and indifference and shame and anger. There are small explosive moments throughout. And there is genuine suspense as minds are changed and numbers are tallied. But the overwhelming majority of what make Two Days, One Night work comes directly from Cotillard.

As in Rosetta, and to a lesser extent, The Silence of Lorna (2008), the camera rarely leaves the hero’s face. The Dardennes began as documentarians and that impulse has never faded. We see her in bed. We see her in her car. We see her walking up stairs and walking up driveways to the homes of the people to whom she will plead her case. Her face goes from passive and defeated to eager and defiant, and covers every conceivable emotion in between. It is not a flashy performance. It is just entirely spot on.

Maybe the most intriguing aspect of the movie is that the issue of class, in the end, does not become all that important. At the beginning, this seems to be about the desperate economic situation Sandra and Manu will face if she can’t retain her position. The Dardennes do not dwell on this at all – there are a few passing references. That appears for a while to be an error. But as the story moves forward, you realize this is not a political film. Sandra encounters a range of fellow workers, some in arguably worse economic positions than she. There seems to be little correlation between their economic position and their attitude toward their co-worker. Though young, Caucasian men seem to be the least-inclined to feel sympathy for Sandra, no one group is vilified or sainted. For some, it is a moral choice. For others, it is purely practical.

Their decisions provide whatever philosophical lesson you might take from Two Days, One Night. Sandra herself provides the humanity. We begin to realize that Sandra is fighting for something more than a part-time job here. Her mental illness has clearly threatened her very life in the past, and now she finds herself in another life-and-death battle. Cotillard’s depiction of heartbreak – the heartbreak that comes when you win an epic struggle only to wake up the next morning and find you must do battle again – is among the most devastatingly palpable emotions put on screen this year. Her will to don the armor again is an unadorned portrait of the regular woman’s resilience.

There are a number of unexpected moments in her journey, and many of the supporting players get good scenes. Timur Magomedgadzhiev’s single scene is as heart-warmingly touching as Laurent Caron’s is frighteningly sinister. The slightly more developed storyline involving another sympathetic co-worker, Anne (Christelle Cornil), may be a little bit more of a traditional movie contrivance, but it works for the most part.

In the end, it all comes back to Cotillard. She was quite good in James Gray’s uneven The Immigrant earlier this year, and this just continues to affirm her place as one of the best film actresses in the world today. One of the nice things about 2014 has been the strong performances given by women playing “regular” roles. Cotillard, like Patricia Arquette in Boyhood, Mia Wasikowska in Tracks, and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything, have given stand-out performances in roles that are far removed from the saints and queens, or prostitutes and drug addicts, that women typically have to take in order to win awards. Cotillard has already won an Oscar for playing the mercurial Edith Piaf. She may not win another this year, but like Sandra, she is going to give it a run for its money.


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Jonathan Eig
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