Over the past twenty years the Dardenne brothers have perfected the art of telling stories about ordinary people plunged into desperate situations. The eye of the Dardennes’ camera watches, probingly and unflinchingly, as their characters fight against the systems that have failed them. I’m of the opinion that their new film, Two Days, One Night, is their best yet, in part because it’s got such a crackerjack premise: Sandra, a Belgian factory worker, stands to lose her job unless she can convince a majority of her co-workers to each forego a 1,000-Euro bonus. The film takes place over the course of a weekend, during which time Sandra attempts to track down each of her co-workers at their homes in order to plead for their mercy.
In terms of its sheer anxiety-making brilliance, the plot is up there with the Dardennes’ Le Fils, about a man who coincidentally finds himself working alongside the juvenile delinquent who killed his son. These stories are not made sensational or grand—they’re rooted in the steady, humble rhythms of the everyday. The filmmakers are inheritors of the neo-realist tradition, and they find poetry and tragedy in the lives of people who might look perfectly boring to us as we pass them on the street.
But that doesn’t mean that they’re quick to endorse blandly humanistic solutions to complex problems, and if Two Days has something of a happy ending it also carries a sting. The film, which is informed by a quiet but insistent Marxism, understands that Sandra’s problem isn’t personal—it’s political. It becomes clear that her long-term happiness and security depend upon more than the sympathy of her individual co-workers: they require an economic model in which she and her labor are valued. In the end, Two Days isn’t about an isolated incidence of workplace ethics but about a poisoned system in which Sandra is only one of many potential victims. The political is personal, too; Sandra’s problems at work bleed over into her home life, and it’s possible to see her chronic depression as a symptom of capitalism itself.
All of this would probably make for interesting enough cinema on its own, but it’s made riveting by Marion Cotillard, whose performance as Sandra is one of the year’s most nerve-jangling. Cotillard’s emotions play out just beyond her eyes; even when the rest of Sandra’s face has hardened into an impassive rictus—a defense mechanism she adopts when she comes face to face with each member of her tribunal—her eyes give away the fear and the shame underneath. She spends most of the first half of the film in a kind of terrified coil. Then there’s a moment when, bolstered by the encouragement of her husband (and a serendipitous pop song on the radio), her face melts into an expression of quiet hope. Between this and The Immigrant, Cotillard is fast becoming one of the most affecting actors of this century. She can generate empathy better than just about anyone else working. It’s worth noting that she’s the first “name” actor the Dardennes have cast in any of their films. She brings a weight and a significance to the film that an unknown actor could not have done. It’s not that we’re compelled by her star power; it’s that the whole film is suffused with the brute force of her talent and the intensity of her feeling.