Title: Two Days, One Night
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Major Players: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione
Out Of Five: 4.5
It’s just days since the latest European figures showed the French economy stagnated during the last quarter. All of which sounds remote and impersonal. They’re just statistics, after all. Not entirely. And the latest from Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne shows why, through just one of the myriad of human stories created by the economic downturn.
Two Days, One Night won a standing ovation at this year’s Cannes and praise was heaped upon Marion Cotillard for her performance as a woman facing redundancy. Despite being in contention for the Palme D’Or, it came away with nothing – which makes you wonder about the films that did win. This one takes some beating.
Sandra (Cotillard) is returning to work after suffering from depression but the economic downturn means that boss of the factory has to cut back. He has two choices: either everybody gives up their bonus of 1,000 Euros each or Sandra loses her job. She and colleague Juliette successfully lobby for a secret ballot among the staff: a previous vote had been compromised by the foreman’s bully boy tactics. It’s to take place on Monday morning, so Sandra can either wait for the outcome over the weekend or try to persuade her colleagues to vote for her to stay. She goes for the second option.
Each meeting is different. Inevitably, the first one is the worst although, for the still emotionally fragile Sandra, they never really get any easier. It’s on the phone and it’s a yes, which gives her the impetus to carry on. There’s an emotional encounter with a tearful Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev), who’d originally voted to keep his bonus and regretted it ever since. There’s Nadine, who won’t even come to the door to talk to her. The father and son who end up fighting over it – the father will vote for her, the son won’t. It goes on over the course of Saturday and, as Sunday moves from day to night, the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense. The ballot is just hours away.
But her appeal never wavers. She tries to understand when people say they will vote for their bonus. Times are hard for everybody. Without her job, Sandra and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) won’t be able to pay the mortgage on their small flat and it will be back to social housing. But most of her fellow workers have a second job and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Who would give up an all-too-needed bonus in their shoes? Even Sandra admits she wouldn’t.
One of her visits opens up a telling sub-plot surrounding her colleague, Anne, who initially refuses to vote for her. However, she agrees to discuss it again with her husband and when Sandra returns to see if she’s made a decision, there’s clearly a heated argument going on between the couple, fuelling Sandra’s guilt about trying to keep her job. When Anne arrives later at Sandra’s house to say she will vote for her, she also reveals she’s leaving her husband, adding “I’ve never decided anything for myself before.” The whole experience is a life changer for her just as much as it is for Sandra.
The Dardennes have chosen a fly-on-the-wall documentary style for the film, turning real life into art. The camera follows Sandra, often accompanied by her loyal husband, as they go on their mission to drum up support. There’s little in the way of soundtrack, except for the occasional song playing in the car. The film starts in silence, broken only by the sound of a mobile phone ringing. At the end, there’s just the sound of the life and working continuing on the industrial estate on a hot summer’s day. And that’s all.
Most of the cast is pretty much unknown, apart from the Oscar winning Cotillard. Not that you’d think she was a big name, as she looks painfully thin with dark circles round her eyes and untidily scraped back hair. She’s simply stunning as Sandra, fragile, frequently bursting into tears but somehow gathering her strength together to fight for herself. And sometimes her performance is more about what she doesn’t say than what she does.
As a film, Two Days, One Night is a knock-out. It’s worth saying that I watched it on my laptop, yet this didn’t diminish its impact in the slightest. In fact, the small screen is perfect for such an intimate story, so hopefully the cinemas showing it will be of the smaller variety as well. After all the blockbusters and special effects of this summer, such simple, direct camerawork and compellingly honest acting shows just how effective and relevant low-budget cinema can be.
Two Days, One Night goes on limited release around the UK on Friday, 22 August and will also be available on demand.