REVIEW: Deux jours, une nuit [Two Days, One Night] [2014]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: May 21st, 2014 (Belgium)
Studio: Cinéart / Sundance Selects
Director(s): Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Writer(s): Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne

“You mustn’t cry”

Leave it to Marion Cotillard to take an otherwise workmanlike film and make it into a must-see. On the surface Deux jours, une nuit [Two Days, One Night] is simply a series of emotionally reactive moments responding to a decision unfairly placed on the shoulders of blue-collar employees at the local solar panel plant. Would you rather collect your year-end bonus or watch as a senior co-worker, just recovered from a depression-induced sick leave, returns to her post by your side? Without a true human connection to the woman on the chopping block, the answer isn’t very difficult to make. You take the money—not only because you need it but also because there’s no guarantee she won’t break down once more. And if that happens you’re out the cash and a pair of hands.

Well, that’s the stance company foreman Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet) takes despite having a connection—falsely telling employees it’s either her or them despite his own boss Mr. Dumont (Batiste Sornin) never saying anything of the sort. It should be an “easy” one or the other choice, but that nudge of coercion and fear tips the scales for a landslide victory of monetary comfort in lieu of altruism. Luckily for Sandra (Cotillard), though, all is not lost since her most vocal champion (Catherine Salée‘s Juliette) caught wind of the slander and brought it up with the man in charge. Dumont agrees to one more secret ballot held Monday morning. That gives Sandra the weekend to personally plead her case and request everyone reevaluate his/her positions. Or, more succinctly and in her words, beg for pity.

This is my first Dardenne Brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc) experience and I believe it a nice one with which to meet them. Something about their work has always seemed a bit on the laborious side, perhaps skewed too much towards the “critical darling” end of the spectrum for me to believe the hype. Two Days, One Night gives me pause, however, because it shows the skill level at which these Belgians create—finding the room for their actors to inhabit such fragile yet strong-willed characters while also constructing a situation so overpowering in its everyman conflict’s authenticity that we forget how meticulously bottled the whole ordeal ultimately is. We’re provided no beginning or end. Hell, Sandra’s journey isn’t even about whether she’ll have a paycheck next week or not. Its real driving force is depression.

And boy what a monster this affliction can become: uncontrollable, overwhelming, and without any discernable logic to both outsiders and those caught drowning in its wake. We can infer Sandra had a nervous breakdown that transformed her to a mess of tears on the job—enough to catch the eye of her superiors so as to be saddled with a mandatory leave of absence. Rather than be supportive, (and I’m not saying the company doesn’t have every right to lay her off once they realize the work can be done without her), though, her return is met with a pink slip. Here she’s risen from a struggle of insurmountable emotional and psychological trauma to become the strongest and most driven she’s ever been and it’s all for naught.

Add the reality that only two of sixteen so-called friends stood up for her while she was in-absentia with her direct boss whispering in everyone’s ear about her not mattering and it’s no surprise the panic attacks and feelings or worthlessness return. It doesn’t matter that she has a husband (Fabrizio Rongione‘s Manu) and two children who love her, nor that she wasn’t entirely alone. That’s not how depression works. It only takes one bad event—or the potential of such—to make Sandra retreat inside herself and build-up invisible walls of self-loathing stemming from the illogical position that it’s all her fault. She must have done something; she must not be good enough; she never was good enough. Maybe if the solar plant is better off without her, so too might her family.

These two days are more than a woman going door-to-door to fight for her job whether it’s a commendable attempt or weak display of panhandling for charity in your eyes. She’s at war with herself too, forced to climb out of bed and into the trenches to talk to people she cannot in good conscience blame for voting in a direction that makes their own lives easier going into the New Year. She must fight the urge to quit and to actively decipher her loved ones’ worry and assistance with her heart, not her easily swayed towards pessimism brain. She must also stoke fires that could lead to physical abuse, divorce, and a level of dissention able to ruin her workplace forever just to ensure everyone knows they’re voting against a human and not merely a name.

It’s a gut-wrenching exercise in futility where even the happy moments of someone agreeing to side with her leaves both parties in tears knowing there’s no real winner either way. Timur Magomedgadzhiev is crushingly devastating in his reaction to seeing her on a Saturday afternoon while Alain Eloy subtly so in his wrestling what’s right for his home against what’s just under God. Laurent Caron is bitingly frank in a way that effectively powers Sandra down not from cruelty but her own acknowledgement of his plight as father (Philippe Jeusette) and son (Yohan Zimmer) find calm rationality and misplaced rage respectively turning the thus far heavy air of attitude into a living, breathing, combustible flame. Sandra is oxygen feeding that fire just as Jean-Marc despite her mission hopefully combating his poison.

No matter whom she talks to or how low she is personally at the time of doing so, Sandra never wavers in her desire to return to work or her empathy towards the impossible decision set forth. Some share her emotionally draining position wherein they can’t actively forsake the bonus despite truly wanting enough co-workers to vote against it. That’s honestly a victory in itself. Seeing Cotillard go from lifeless malaise to optimistic promise on a dime provides an invigorating roller coaster that hits lows much lower than I expected. It doesn’t feel overwrought once, though, in large part to her awards-worthy performance at its center. We root for her to at least see how much her friends care—how most respect her enough to say “No” face-to-face. Because even if her job is gone, she still exists.

courtesy of IFC Films & Sundance Selects

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