Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the figureheads of Belgian cinema, returned to Cannes this year with their latest: political redundancy drama Two Days, One Night.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) wants to return to her job in a workshop making solar cells after overcoming a serious depression. Times are tough however, the financial crisis has hit the company hard and there is not enough money to take her back. As a result, the sixteen other employees are given a choice: if they agree to give up their yearly bonus (1,000 euros apiece), Sandra can stay. In a first poll, fourteen votes fell against her and now she has two days to convince her colleagues to change their minds.
Taking place over a single weekend, the Dardennes stretch to feature length what other filmmakers would portray in a short montage. The bulk of the movie consists of her encounters with her co-workers, all of whom she visits at home. Every one of these confrontations is shown in its entirety: we see her walk up to the door, ask the children/spouse where the sought-after person is, recite her rehearsed lines and hope to convince them. By repeating this scene over and over with varying results, the Dardennes ask us the same question time and time again: would you give up 1,000 euros, money which you may desperately need, in order to help out a colleague? It is a terrible dilemma to be confronted with and one without a correct answer.
Above all towers (or rather cowers) Marion Cotillard giving the best performance of her career to date. Leaving behind all the glamour and glitz of her Hollywood appearances and going even further than in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, here is a woman who has all but given up. Not fully believing in her own plea, feeling guilty for begging for her friends’ pity, you always get a sense of a strong inner conflict. We never really know whether she really wants to keep her job or whether she only tries at the insistence of her supporting husband. Cotillard transformed her entire body language for this complete performance. Her shoulders slumped, walking clumsily, avoiding eye contact; she has a completely different way of holding herself. She looks like she is in constant pain. This goes into the minutest details: the way she opens a bottle of water, the way she eats an ice-cream cone, the way she pays for a bottle of water; everything she does lacks conviction or self-belief. Her discomfort is emphasized by the brilliant cinematography. There are close-ups, but the camera generally keeps an awkward distance.
I did however have a couple of issues with the film. First of all, a couple of reactions from Sandra’s co-workers, both positive and negative, felt overplayed, melodramatic and were frankly unbelievable in the highly realistic context of the film. This is partly due to the actors failing to convince, but also to the contrived nature of the screenplay. My biggest problem with the film is moreover that one crucial and extreme action, about an hour into the film, which changes everything we know about the Sandra, is simply brushed over and forgotten about. There seem to be no consequences whatsoever to this, which made me feel a bit uneasy.
Two Days, One Night remains an intriguing watch elevated by the masterful Marion Cotillard, who is touted for the best actress award in Cannes.