There’s probably no better and more intimate window to look at the current worldwide economic crisis than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s riveting humanist drama Two Days, One Night. Anchored by one of star Marion Cotillard’s career best performances (one that rightfully garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination this week), the Belgian filmmaking brothers deliver their best look at working class struggles and heartbreak to date. Considering they’ve made films like The Kid with a Bike, Rosetta, and L’enfant, that’s one hell of an accomplishment.
Cotillard stars as Sandra, a mother of two who’s just getting over a bout of depression to learn that she has been downsized at her solar panel manufacturing job. With a bit of coercion from her supervisor, a all but two of her 16 co-workers have taken a thousand Euro payoff to take on the extra work in Sandra’s absence. Having only recently come off of public assistance, Sandra is desperate to keep her job. Encouraged by her kitchen worker husband (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra sets off on a weekend long door-to-door tour of her co-workers houses to try and convince just over half of them to vote in her favour to set aside their bonuses and let her keep her job via secret balloting.
If all politics are personal, than Sandra’s punishing and egoless campaigning represents a form of stumping for votes that her society should actually be welcoming instead of shunning. The Dardennes create a drama so wrenching in its humanist tendencies that it bristles and chills like a thriller. It’s a confrontation, openly asking the audience to revaluate what they define as a selfish act and what’s a selfless act. It forces viewers into the mindset of an employee that’s desperate to keep a job that has proven that it doesn’t want her in the first place. It’s not about “the principle” of her firing, but about the very need to survive at all costs; the need to provide for dependents in an economy where people with her history might never find another job again.
The Dardennes also refuse to make all of Sandra’s co-workers uncaring cads simply looking for a handout. Most of them are in similar situations to her predicament, and part of the suspense comes from never knowing exactly what kind of reaction Sandra will receive as she attempts to conclude her ticking-clock mission. The unease the audience feels when the film is working at its best is the churning feeling that some of her co-workers could actually be doing what’s best for their way of life and wondering if Sandra would truly respond in kind if the shoe were on the other foot. We know Sandra is a good person despite her more obvious faults, but her co-workers only know one side of her personality. It’s harsh at times, but ultimately truthful.
But the film belongs to Cotillard, who acclimates herself perfectly to the Dardenne’s long take shooting style perfectly in a role that forces her to stay on camera 98% of the time. If Sandra’s pursuit is quietly relentless and vital, Cotillard’s performance has to match. It’s a harrowing portrayal of a woman who has unraveled before going through awful feelings all over again. Sandra knows she has to keep it together mentally to keep her job, but it’s a struggle (not helped by her propensity for popping Xanax). Cotillard shows unease and stress through subtle, but mounting tics and sometimes halting speech patterns. She understands that her character is the story, and her character has to come to a realistic emotional climax in the exact amount of time the film allots. It comes with a high degree of difficulty, but she earns all the top marks.
It’s one thing to say that an actor’s portrayal of hardship is “unglamorous” because that’s an easy, meaningless term to assign to something realistic. The Dardennes and Cotillard understand that everyday problems are never easy or good looking (although, the film certainly looks great on the whole). There aren’t any false notes in the work here, but the work being sought in the story might ultimately bring false hope. And there’s no bigger underlining commentary on the state of living today than following a protagonist who has been forced into living so they can work.