Director: Luc Dardenne & Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard
Over the course of 27 years and 9 films, the Dardenne brothers have become the modern masters of the moral quandary. Often their films center on one act or event, one decision which will have heavy consequences, depicting that choice through the eyes of a person who lives on the fringes of society who doesn't necessarily have the luxury to make the wrong choice. This isn't to say that the Dardennes are preachy; their stories may often center on the decision between doing the "right" thing or the "wrong" thing (and what it means for something to be right or wrong, given a character's circumstances), but their tone is never judgmental, merely observational. In that respect, Two Days, One Night fits easily with previous films like L'Enfant and Lorna's Silence, all being films which are concerned with questions of guilt and morality. In other respects, this film is a departure, being a bit more overtly plotted, feeling slightly less free-flowing than the directors' previous works, though it is by no means a "lesser" film for that. Two Days, One Night is a deeply engaging, riveting film; it is a small movie and a short one, but man is it ever great.
Marion Cotillard stars as Sandra, a working class woman who has been on leave from work due to depression and has been slowly drawing herself out of it with the help of her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione). As the film opens it is a Friday and Sandra receives a phone call from a friend and co-worker who reveals that the manager of the factory where they work has allowed the rest of the employees to decide whether or not Sandra can come back, telling them that if she is laid off then there will be enough in the budget for everyone to get a €1,000 bonus. If she comes back, then there will be no bonus. The employees are allowed to take a vote and, with two exceptions, vote for the bonus. Sandra is devastated but is convinced by her friend and Manu to go to the factory and talk to the manager, who agrees to hold a new vote on Monday morning, giving Sandra the weekend to try to convince her fellow workers to let her stay. Though Manu insists to her that there's hope and that if her co-workers actually see her in person, the majority will change their minds about her being fired, Sandra remains dejected, the revelation that a vote has already taken place once and not gone in her favor stripping away any feelings of self-worth that she has left and making her feel like a beggar going door to door, hat in hand. Still, what choice does she have when she and Manu won't be able to get by with their two children on his salary alone?
Before she begins going door to door, she already has three votes in her favor, but that hardly gives her confidence, and as she visits her co-workers she experiences a range of intense emotions. Some of her co-workers respond to her visits with relief, expressing to her their regret at having voted for the bonus and welcoming the opportunity to vote again, this time in her favor. Other co-workers react with discomfort, explaining to her that they didn't vote against her, but for the bonus that they need for this reason or that (to put towards their child's college tuition, to alleviate the stress of being the family's sole breadwinner, etc.). Some react with anger, accusing her of taking money out of their pockets, and some refuse to see her at all. The stress of the situation - particularly when she witnesses the inter-family conflict which arises from her visit and the threat of money that has already been spent in the minds of the family members disappearing - quickly wears on her, but with Manu's support she presses forward, struggling to hold herself together the whole way and not give in to the despair that once ruled her. All she needs to do is make it to Monday.
Two Days, One Night tells its story in a simple, unforced fashion, but there's something almost hypnotic about the combined forces of the Dardennes and Cotillard. Cotillard is an amazing actress in general, but she is particularly great here, going small in a role that many actors would seize as an opportunity to go big. There is no huge breakdown scene in the film, no scenery chewing; there are quiet moments of despair, most of which are downplayed as Cotillard's Sandra struggles to keep her emotional floodgates from opening and to keep from being a burden to those who love her, and there are rare, brief moments of joy and happiness, but Cotillard keeps it all at an even-keel, living as Sandra rather than performing her. Cotillard is the first movie star the Dardennes have ever built a film around (they tend to gravitate towards first-time actors as part of their naturalistic style), but she never seems out of place in the world that the film depicts, one where all the characters are essentially living from one paycheque to the next and an extra €1,000 seems like the difference between life and death. The depth of this milieu is all the more keenly felt for how rich, sensitive, and fully realized Cotillard's performance is.
The other key component to the film's success, of course, is the Dardenne brothers both in terms of their direction and their screenplay. As directors, they never force anything, allowing emotions and tensions to rise and fall in any given scene in such a way that they seem to have a life of their own. As writers, they demonstrate exceptional intelligence and confidence, in addition to an underlying compassion for their characters and their circumstances. From any other filmmakers, you might have to worry about how they'll stick the landing with a story like this, given the obvious choices: a feel good ending that strains credibility but might arguably feel earned due to how profoundly we've come to feel for the protagonist; a downer ending which feels realistic but leaves a bitter, despairing taste; a non-ending which finds the screen fading to black just as Sandra is about to get the results of the vote, relieving the filmmakers from having to make a decision but risking that the audience will feel robbed or even betrayed. The Dardennes take none of those routes, instead opting to take a turn which forces the audience to question its own sense of right and wrong, and which provides Sandra with the agency and power that circumstance has previously made it impossible for her to seize. In its final moments, the film lets go of the reigns, allowing the character to become the force that determines the outcome rather than leaving her at the mercy of the narrative. It's a bold choice and it pays off beautifully, making this already great film seem just about perfect.