In Two Days, One Night, the newest film from directing duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Marion Cotillard stars as Sandra, a factory worker who had taken an unspecified amount of time away from her job to battle a nasty bout of depression. As she regains strength and plans to return to work, she discovers that her sixteen coworkers were forced to choose between keeping her position at the factory or eliminating the position, an event that would lead to the remaining employees receiving a 1,000 euro bonus. They choose the bonus, with only two opting to retain her. However, there is some controversy, as those who voted for Sandra believe their supervisor had been threatening the other voters into giving Sandra the axe, claiming that management would just fire someone else if she stayed. Perhaps out of pity or some sense of justice, she is given one weekend to try and convince her fellow workers to change their votes ahead of another meeting on Monday. With a husband working a low-wage job as a cook and two children to support, her’s salary is the only thing keeping them afloat. Still reeling from her depression and in danger of tumbling back into the abyss, Sandra heads out to plead her case.
The conceit of Two Days, One Night is not about violence or blood or horror, but that does not hold it back from being among the most harrowing and heartrending cinematic experience of 2014. Forced to weigh the value of her own life against the financial security and well being of her coworkers, Sandra’s weekend is a series of baptisms by fire. Each long, agonizing walk to prostrate herself in front of another arbiter of her future is etched on her face, weighing down her shoulders, altering her gait. She shuffles from home to home, her mood inexorably tied to the outcome of every conversation. It is an inordinately cruel position in which to put a woman recovering from bouts of depression (and almost equally cruel for those she must convince), popping Xanax like popcorn just to keep herself level long enough to endure another conversation bartering for her financial security.
It is an astonishing performance, one of many now from Marion Cotillard, continuing to become a stalwart of the screen. She so thoroughly inhabits Sandra, her mood swings, her desperations, her reticence about the entire enterprise. It is a quiet, measured performance, one without bombast or melodrama. She’s vitally, urgently empathetic, inspiring a tragic fusion of sympathy and pity. The heart breaks along with hers, rises with the good news and falls with the bad. Sandra is fully realized, a performance certainly among the most accomplished of the year, male or female, uniting the themes of the film and honing them to a sharp point. She dominates the proceedings, but the film makes sure to take the time to give each of her coworkers layers of intrigue as well; Cotillard will be chiefly remembered as the credits roll, but this is a stellar ensemble, and even the smallest of roles are handled with dignity and care.
The Dardennes’ camera is both impressionistic and uncompromising, laser-focused on faces, not particularly concerned with capturing the full scope of scene or setting. Acting as equal parts voyeur and mediator, it stays tight, refusing to allow the tension of the situation to diffuse. The intimacy of these confrontations, pitching the needs of the self versus the needs of another, all justified in their own ways, Greed is not the name of the game here. Everyone is barely scraping by, and the promise of 1,000 Euros is often too necessary for their own survival. It represents utility payments for a year, the opportunity to pay down debt. The tragedy of Two Days, One Night is how justified everyone is (well, nearly everyone), and the camera never settles, never allows room to breathe. It studies Sandra in her most intimate moments, despair looming over her as she curls into a fetal position in the passenger seat of the family car, her husband driving her toward the next showdown. The humanity of it all bleeds through at every angle.
The messiness of the whole process is what sticks in the mind long after the credits roll. There is so much humanity splayed across the screen, raw and exposed, forced to confront the innermost recesses of their moral compasses in the most public of ways. It is a morality play in 14 acts, a constant assault on the dignity and and sensibilities of its characters. It feels aggressively modern, the sort of film that would not have the resonance it has if it were released prior to the recent worldwide financial collapse. The stakes feel real; Sandra’s concern for her family’s wellbeing has weight (it is believable that her prospects for reemployment would be bleak), and the way the Dardennes and Cotillard play this against her crippling depression is masterful. There is a clear understanding that this ordeal could be her only escape, and yet she can barely get out of her own way.
Two Days, One Night is the sort of film that will linger in the mind. Its grey areas and moral quagmire age like a fine wine in the memory, gaining new appreciation with time. The Dardennes do more with speech than most directors can achieve with a full compliment of cinematic technique; limitless depth is born from a beguilingly simple premise. Cotillard is the connective tissue, so assured in the way she presents Sandra’s fragility. It is the sort of performance that only comes around so often ensconced in the sort of movie that only comes around so often. This film, without the need of aliens or mining colonies made from the severed head of galactic beings or CGI apes or sinister pop-up books, provides a distinctly enveloping and rattling experience. Emotion seeping from every pore, there are few experiences better than this to be found in the theater this year.