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CANNES – The injustices of the workplace and the basic but tenuous dignity of being able to earn a living have been frequent themes in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, going back to their early breakthroughs with The Promise and Rosetta. Their latest affecting drama, Two Days, One Night, chronicles the weekend-long crusade of a working-class woman, played with piercing emotional transparency by Marion Cotillard, to reverse a decision regarding the termination of her employment. Once again, it’s enriched by the signature qualities – the humanistic, nonjudgmental gaze, the absence of sentimentality, the ultra-naturalistic style – that have always distinguished the Belgian brothers’ fine body of work.
Even before the global economic meltdown of the past several years, and the ubiquitous rise of such corporate practices as self- and co-worker evaluations, staggered layoffs and contract buyouts, French-language cinema has long focused on the cancerous impact of that business culture on individuals and families. Laurent Cantet‘s ironically titled 1999 debut, Human Resources, is an obvious example.
Sandra (Cotillard) has been pushed out of her job working for a small solar panel company following a vote in which fellow employees were given a choice between her redundancy or their 1,000 euro bonuses. Recently recovered from a bout of depression that kept her off work, Sandra’s impulse is to crawl back into bed with a Xanax. But her loving husband, Manu (Dardennes regular Fabrizio Rongione), urges her to fight to keep her job.
Initially, Sandra is too defeated to speak up for herself, but her colleague and friend Juliette (Catherine Salee) catches the firm’s manager (Baptiste Sornin) on Friday afternoon, persuading him to revisit the issue in a silent ballot on Monday morning. With 14 out of her 16 co-workers having voted against her, that leaves Sandra two days to track down their addresses, visit them at their homes and persuade at least seven more to forgo their bonuses and vote in her favor, securing the majority she needs in order to remain employed.
Less out of pride than her own battered self-belief and her awareness of her co-workers’ similar financial strains, Sandra refuses to plead or seek pity. She says little of the difficulty of raising her two kids (Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry) on her husband’s wages as a cook, or of the likelihood of having to move the family back into welfare housing. Instead she simply presents her case, appealing to her colleagues’ sense of decency and pointing out the unfairness of the firm’s foreman (Olivier Gourmet, another Dardennes favorite), making their decision into an either/or proposal.
Editor Marie-Helene Dozo uses the repetitive aspect of these visits to instill a gentle but urgent rhythm in the superbly modulated story.
While the setup might seem the basis for a look at people’s venal natures, and their inability to think beyond personal gain, the Dardennes are unfailingly compassionate filmmakers. In casual observations full of small but telling details, we see one person after another engaged in his or her own struggle, many of them in immigrant families, working two jobs or with spouses on unemployment. The ones who either refuse to hear Sandra out or react with hostility are the minority, outweighed by those to whom 1,000 euros makes a difference simply too great to ignore. It’s a quiet but wrenching portrayal of no-frills lives.
However, like shafts of sunlight on a gray day, each small triumph illuminates the film with hope. In the most beautiful scene, Sandra approaches a young father (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) while he’s coaching a junior soccer team. She helped him when he was new to the job, and the overwhelming shame he reveals after having voted against her is devastating. Another lovely exchange occurs in a laundromat with a short-term contract worker (Serge Koto).
There are also deeply moving moments involving Anne (Christelle Cornil), who is sympathetic but under the thumb of her husband. An interlude in which Anne, Manu and Sandra – all rock fans – sing along to “Gloria” by Van Morrison‘s band Them on the car radio provides a liberating reprieve from worry, and from the inexorable approach of Monday morning.
While some may take issue with Sandra’s drastic action at a certain point when the odds against her appear impossible, the scene and her behavior throughout are validated by absolute psychological and emotional integrity. And the way in which the Dardennes, as well as Manu, simply put the incident behind them and move on, feels entirely true to the characters.
Likewise, some might quibble that Manu is an idealization of the supportive spouse, tirelessly and selflessly bolstering Sandra’s fragile resolve. But on the contrary, his behavior – and Rongione’s emotional honesty as an actor – makes this a tender yet matter-of-fact depiction of the dynamic in relationships where managing clinical depression requires constant vigilance.
Scrutinized in intimate but never intrusive style by Alain Marcoen‘s camera, the actors play not a single false note. That applies especially to the transfixing Cotillard, giving a performance in this deglamorized role that stands alongside her best work. Whether her reaction is one of gratitude or sober understanding, Sandra’s exchanges with the colleagues she must convince speak volumes about the fundamental decency of both the character and the filmmakers. While there are no artificial epiphanies here, it’s heartening to watch her draw spiritual replenishment from putting up a good fight.
Given that job security is now high among the most pressing anxieties of 21st century life, Two Days, One Night grips from start to finish with its candid account of a situation that for many will be relatable. While standard HR training at most companies worldwide underlines the importance of personal detachment from regrettable workplace realities, the Dardennes’ exquisite film makes it impossible to remain impassive to the human tradeoffs.
Production: Les Films du Fleuve, Archipel 35, Bim Distribuzione, Eyeworks, France 2 Cinema, RTBF, Belgacom
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Catherine Salee, Baptiste Sornin, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Philippe Jeusette, Christelle Cornil, Serge Koto, Olivier Gourmet
Director-screenwriters: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Producers: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Denis Freyd
Executive producer: Delphine Tomson
Director of photography: Alain Marcoen
Production designer: Igor Gabriel
Costume designer: Maira Ramedhan-Levi
Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 95 minutes
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