“Two Days, One Night” starts with a close-up shot of its heroine, and then it rarely looks away from her as she struggles through her several difficult days. She is reluctant about doing what she should do in her circumstance, and she is also not exactly in a good condition for the struggle which may result in more despair and depression for her, but she tries as much as she can anyway as the camera patiently follows her journey during one desperate weekend.
During the opening scene, we get to learn a few things about Sandra (Marion Cotillard) as she learns from her friend/co-worker Juliette (Catherine Salée) that she will be fired from her job. Although the movie does not go into details, we can infer that Sandra recently went through a bout of depression and then has been on a sick leave for a while, and, considering that she still looks fragile as trying to resume her daily life, this sudden bad news is surely a hurtful blow to her.
She was one of 17 workers in a solar panel factory, which has been going through difficulties due to its competition with foreign companies. It seems the boss decided during Sandra’s absence that the factory can be operated well even with 16 workers, and Sandra’s co-workers had to make a decision on whether they should object to that. Some of them have worked with Sandra as her close colleagues, but the voting result was overwhelmingly against her mainly because of the incentive offered by their boss; if they agree to Sandra’s discharge, each of them will receive a bonus of 1000 euro except a couple of contract workers who will receive a less amount of bonus instead, and they may earn more later through overtime work.
Sandra’s family will be under a difficult economic situation because of this. While her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione, one of the regular actors of the directors/writers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) also works to support their family, but his income is not enough for their current living, and, if Sandra remains unemployed, they will probably move back to cheap apartment building because they cannot pay off the mortgage on their current residence any more.
At least, Sandra manages to get a good chance when she and Juliette meet their boss at the factory. It looks like that their foreman threatened the co-workers before the open vote on Friday (whether he really did that is one of several unanswered questions in the film), so they demand a secret vote, and the boss allows the second vote to be held on next Monday.
The rest of the film is about Sandra’s efforts for persuading her co-workers to change their mind during the following weekend. She is not very willing to do this at first because she knows how awkward it will be for her as well as them, but she eventually decides to make a forward move after realizing during one small moment that she may actually reverse her co-workers’ initial decision, so she personally visits them one by one after getting their addresses through Manu and Juliette’s help.
While her petition to them functions as a sort of opening refrain in its narrative, the movie observes different responses from Sandra’s co-workers. While some of them decide to change their mind after meeting her, others still stick to their initial decision, and we see how it is a very difficult choice for each of them as they are being confronted by Sandra. Like Sandra, her co-workers are all struggling working class people, and 1,000 euro is something they cannot easily reject, and Sandra understands too well why some of her co-workers are still going to vote against her even though they really feel sorry about her. In case of one guy, he makes it clear to Sandra that he cannot vote for her because he must need money to support his family, and he clearly feels guilty about his decision as he awkwardly says he hopes she will win on next Monday.
The movie steadily accumulates its low-key suspension as the handheld camera concentrates on Sandra through its austere approach. Sensing her chance decreasing more or more, she feels more nervous and desperate, and she frequently pops prescribed pills into her mouth. After painfully reminded of her expandable position at one point, she finds herself driven to utter despair, and it is soon followed by one of a few dramatic moments in the film.
As the center of the film, Marion Cotillard beautifully carries the movie with her unadorned performance which is effortlessly mixed into the mundane background along with her co-actors’ equally realistic supporting performances. Like Cécile De France did in the Dardenne brothers’ previous film “The Kid with a Bike” (2011), Cotillard looks believable as an ordinary character even though she does attract our attention as a recognizable actress, and her commendable work in this film makes an impressive contrast to her recent turn in James Gray’s “The Immigrant” (2013), in which she fully immersed herself into a completely different mode as another desperate woman struggling through social hardships. These two performances of hers are quite opposite to each other in acting style, but both of them illuminate with each own human dignity thank to Cotillard’s immense talent, and they certainly exemplify her remarkable range as two of her best performances.
The Dardenne brothers have kept impressing us through the series of memorable social drama films since “La Promesse” (1996) while never having any misstep, and “Two Days, One Night”, which was selected as the Belgium’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2015 Academy Awards (it did not make it to the final list, unfortunately), is another terrific work from these great director brothers. Through their dry but ultimately humane storytelling, they let us gradually have understanding and sympathy on not only Sandra but also other characters in the film, and we accordingly come to think about how they happen to be put into such a difficult situation like that – and what we would do if we were them.
After going through the period represented by its very title, the movie finally arrives at the point expected from the beginning. I will not go into details on what will happen in the end, but I can tell you that I was very satisfied with how the movie thoughtfully handles its ‘climax’ for the following ending. Its last line sounds simple, but it will linger on you along with the last shot of the film – and then you will probably see that the movie is more than what it seemed to be about at first.