Many of the interactions in Two Days, One Night occur on opposite sides of doorways, liminal spaces echoing protagonist Sandra’s (Marion Cotillard) temporary suspension between employment and unemployment. In their new film, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are fond of such uncomplicated visual correlatives for their lead character’s plight. Bringing Sandra closer to the camera during her moments of emotional self-awareness (be it anguish or ecstasy) or letting her drift further away in bouts of dazed dissociation (such as when her depression gets so bad she seems to fall asleep inside herself) are methods that help establish something close to a one-to-one empathetic relationship between camera and subject. It’s all fitting because the Dardennes are less interested in the politics and economics of their chosen scenario than they are in surveying the full spectrum of Sandra’s social existence, a spectrum that gradually starts to form a picture not of the specific assembly-line factory where she works, but rather civilization at large and all its familiar peculiarities and inconsistencies.
In the opening frames, as she undergoes her first of the film’s several daytime snoozes, Sandra’s still employed by Solwal, a small solar-panel company. But the intrusive ringing of a phone offscreen (which will gradually morph into the Dardennes’ version of a recurring Bernard Herrmann suspense cue in an Alfred Hitchcock film) brings news that, in her depression-induced leave of absence, her colleagues have voted for 1,000-euro bonuses, a verdict that has the inconvenient effect of booting Sandra off the team. Seeing that the boss rigged the vote, though, one of Sandra’s gracious staff friends is able to convince everyone to participate in a revote on the following Monday, thus giving Sandra a whole weekend — the pilgrimage of the title — to track down her fellow staff one by one in hopes of swaying them in her favor. Alas, to ask that a working-class 9–5er sacrifice that much-desired income bump so that you may retain your job is a near-impossible request in this recession-era day and age, and Sandra is never less than wholly troubled by the imposition. Though she meets some employees who are moved to selfless decisions by her plight, frequent rejections are made out of pragmatic necessity or, in some cases, even a violent frustration at being imposed upon, the latter only swelling Sandra’s feelings of guilt.
From this premise, Two Days, One Night quickly develops a sturdy formula: Sandra hesitantly approaches someone’s house, apartment or side-job workplace, summarizes to him/her the news of the revote (rarely has the screenwriting concept of a “plot recap” been so copiously employed), squeezes out the demanding request if it hasn’t already been inferred by the listener, and proceeds to the next subject upon getting an answer — all of which is then further recapped when she conducts her seemingly hourly call with husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) to report the tally of supporters vs. dissenters. The film’s incessant doubling-and-tripling-over of the basic facts of the scenario comes across less as a heavy-handed script flaw than as a reappearance of the kind of verbal overcompensation practiced so controversially by Gravity (if not a testament to the mind-numbing nuisance of performing any kind of door-to-door salesman work). If Sandra Bullock’s space cowgirl spoke constantly as a way to assure herself of her continued sentience in an endangering situation, the Dardennes’ Sandra must talk to clarify to herself that she’s strong enough to carry on living. It’s telling that her quietest stretch of screen time leads to a frightening attempted suicide by way of willful over-medication.
surprisingly elegant in landing on suggestive compositions without the gestures feeling predetermined
Invoking a mega-budget galactic CGI spectacle in relation to Two Days, One Night—which arrives, on its triennial schedule, with the Dardennes’ usual handheld intimacy—probably seems perverse. But beyond the fact that both films focus on middle-aged women feeling adrift from their loved ones and facing trials of life-or-death stakes, there’s a shared aesthetic mentality at work. In the sense that both movies involve an ostensibly artless, documentary-like camera eye with the resolute mission of following the action, they are also both surprisingly elegant in landing on suggestive compositions without the gestures feeling predetermined. In an early shot, Sandra, seen in profile, approaches her co-worker in his backyard, but the camera doesn’t pan to reveal him until the last second before she speaks, a move that corresponds to her growing confidence to begin talking. But when she does talk, the Dardennes keep the camera in a loose two-shot wide enough to show a metal bar cutting across the foreground and visually barricading the two characters from each other. Later, the shot is mimicked during another confrontation, this time with the Dardennes using the edge of a house in the background to bisect the frame between a brick wall and a sunny rural vista. But while the earlier instance cut her compositional space to a fragment, Sandra’s half of the frame here has expanded considerably, a subtle indication of her increasing resolve.
This below-the-surface sensitivity on the Dardennes’ part speaks to a tendency that is one of the rarefied goals of art: to not only achieve a sense of empathetic harmony with another human being, but also to reflect that reality and present a moral perspective on it in ways that memorialize that subject’s experience. In Two Days, One Night, the perspective is strong and clear: Life can be a constant string of challenges, but what’s less vital than succeeding against those hardships is surviving them with dignity intact. It is only when Sandra’s perception of the rightness or wrongness of her pursuit wavers that her spirit seeps out (and Cotillard’s finest achievement in an overall magisterial performance lies in conveying this intangible shift from weary presence to detached specter, a change that is really all about careful eyelid and upper-back control—both slump imperceptibly forward when the burden gets too heavy). Two Days, One Night’s ultimate conclusion is only a downer from the most literal-minded, plot-driven perspective; in every other significant way, it’s a profound personal victory.