Cannes: Two Days, One Night review

Two Days, One Night Marion Cotillard

The films of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne are widely acclaimed by critics but maybe don’t cross over to public appreciation like some other, similar works.

Their films are often extraordinarily moving, flawlessly made and soiciopolitically fascinating but they also tell small, intimate stories in a very quiet and restrained manner which tends not to be a commercial approach. They also lack the ‘star names’ that sadly seem to so often influence cinemagoers’ selections. But for their latest, Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes have broken with their traditional casting of less well-known actors, and sometimes even non-actors, by giving the central role to Marion Cotillard. Perhaps the inclusion of a bigger name may lead to a wider audience for this remarkable feature. I certainly hope so.

Thankfully, Cotillard is also more than up to any challenge presented by the Dardennes’ low key, realistic approach, and never once looks out of place. Her character, Sandra, is a woman who is recovering from a breakdown and hoping to return to work soon, despite still struggling with depression, anxiety and a very unhealthy addiction to Xanax. Cotillard looks every bit as beaten-down as she should, with every movement proving minor, awkward and unsure. As her voice cracks and falters, her face and lips seem to quiver with uncertainty and fragility.

Sandra’s co-workers have been asked to vote on her employment. Either she can stay with the company, or she can be fired and everybody else will get a thousand Euro bonus to compensate for the extra workload this will mean. As Sandra is not the only one to feel the effects of the struggling economy, it was decided that she’s out.

But there appears to have been some unfair pressure, and one member of staff, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), may have disseminated misleading information, and so Sandra has been given a lifeline. There will be another vote, this time a secret ballot, to finally seal her fate. But first, she has the weekend to try and convince her colleagues to elect that she keep her job.

What follows takes a structure very reminiscent of Twelve Angry Men, as Sandra slowly chips away at each of the people to hold a vote. She visits them at home, often conversing in their doorways; she collars them on the street; and, in one case, at football practice. These are all personal spaces, far removed from the work environment, and the private times in which we don’t see our co-workers, and they don’t see us.

Sandra is, in some ways, a foreign body rupturing these personal spaces, but she’s also a reminder that the work we do is intricately linked to our personal lives. Our jobs and the financial stability that they bring are crucial to who we are in all of our hours.

The vote is important to Sandra’s life, but also to her co-workers. The company that has forced this vote is playing God. This is a very significant, underlying theme, but the Dardennes don’t labour it. They don’t harp on worker’s rights, unions and the effects of economic downturn but they make the themes felt. They put a face on the issues and investigate the deeply personal truths behind the stories we hear of corporate cutbacks.

As the film builds towards its somewhat surprising conclusion, it’s revealed that this story is rather more about Sandra than was hinted earlier. Her journey as a character is so subtly and beautifully developed through the Dardennes’ sophisticated handling of the drama, with their usual unfussy camerawork and naturalistic staging paying dividends. The emotion creeps up and the final shot of Cotillard reveals, to some effect, just how far we’ve come.