Mark Reviews Movies

Two Days, One Night


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Christelle Cornil, Olivier Gourmet, Baptiste Sornin

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some mature thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 12/24/14 (limited); 1/16/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 23, 2014

The choice to be made by the woman's co-workers is simple: either the woman keeps her job or the rest of the staff receives a bonus. If they vote to keep their co-worker, they don't get the bonus, but if they opt for the money, the woman will be fired.

It might be best to start this discussion of Two Days, One Night, the latest film by the writing/directing team of brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, with a rhetorical question to you, dear reader: Which way would you vote? Let's be optimistic about humanity in general and assume that, when confronted with a straightforward moral choice between kindness and self-interest, the majority—if not a significant majority—of people would choose the option that does not deprive another person of his or her livelihood. Let's presume that the reflexive reaction of the conscience in such a scenario is one of empathy.

Even if a person might think of the choosing money, there must at least be an internal voice that's troubled by the thought: If I was in her situation, wouldn't I hope that people would consider what will happen to me? Guilt is a powerful reflex, too.

Now, though, let's clarify some things, because it's not a hypothetical situation that the film presents. If the woman had not been at work for a few months, would that affect your thinking? If the reason she has not been working is because she has been ill, would that make you certain that keeping her employed is a moral imperative?

With cursory consideration, the Dardennes' primary concern may appear to be the posing of the central question to the audience. It's a simple inquiry: "What would you do?" There are a couple of major kinks in that way of viewing the film, though. The first is that the story is told from the point of view of Sandra (Marion Cotillard), the woman whose fate is on the line. The second is even more important: At the start of the film, the vote has already been held, and the decision has been made. Sandra is fired.

If we had assumptions about the inherently good and decent nature about humanity, they're shaken a little as we learn the details of Sandra's life. She has a loving, supportive husband named Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and they have two children to support—now, on just Manu's meager salary as a cook at a restaurant. She has been on sick leave from her job at a factory that manufactures solar panels in order to treat her depression, and the news of her firing comes the Friday before the week she was ready to return.

A few employees voted for Sandra instead of the bonus, including her friend Juliette (Catherine Salée), who convinces Sandra to ask their boss (Baptiste Sornin) to have a second vote on Monday morning. Juliette is certain that the foreman sabotaged the vote by lying about the boss' intentions. The boss agrees to the new vote, although Juliette is the one who does all the talking while Sandra, still unsure of herself, stands behind her friend her head lowered. Sandra now has the weekend to ask each of the other 15 employees to consider voting for her to retain her job.

The film follows Sandra on her campaign—calling her co-workers, making unannounced visits to them at home or wherever their spouses say that they happen to be. It may not sound particularly dramatic, but the Dardennes have established genuine, life-affecting stakes for a sympathetic character. It is, for certain, plenty dramatic in those terms, and what's surprising is how much sympathy the filmmakers have to pass on to the assortment of characters to whom Sandra is petitioning.

A few of them are selfish and just want the money, yes, but the majority of them simply do not know if they can vote for her when a bonus—what turns out to be a pretty sizeable amount—is on the line. These people and their families are struggling just the same as Sandra and her family.

They have bills to pay. They have spouses who are unemployed. One is working a second job but must keep it a secret from his wife. One woman's husband is pressuring her to vote for the bonus so they can renovate their house, and another woman ignores Sandra entirely. One man is worried that he, as a recent hire, will put his own job at risk if his vote keeps his co-workers from getting a bonus. Another man breaks down in tears upon seeing Sandra, knowing that she, a sincerely decent person who helped him out of tough spot at work, doesn't deserve to go through this ordeal.

This is not as simple a choice as it first appears, and that's because, in the real world, moral decisions do not exist in a vacuum of ethical theory. The film puts that reality into practice, and by way of the film's relatively subtle observations, the results display how wise and clear-sighted the Dardennes are in their understanding of human behavior. We see patterns emerge, such as the way everyone who says they will vote for the bonus ask how many people Sandra has convinced (Is it basic curiosity, a way to see which way the tide is going in order to ride with it, or just a practical way of determining the odds that the money they expected will or won't be coming to them?).

The patterns are even more important in the film's incisive study of Sandra. She slides into depression, only to emerge from the fog at the sight of some glimmer of hope. When she inevitably slides back, something in Cotillard's face—a treasure trove of raw, naked honesty here—lets us see the defeat and the ensuing struggle to maintain some semblance of normalcy, even if it's just a façade for others (That quality is underscored in a mundane scene that turns heartrending, as she keeps a sad song on the radio to prove to Manu that she can handle it). Cotillard's is a tremendous performance of delicate variations, and it elevates Two Days, One Night to another level of compassionate observation.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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