In any given workplace, there's a tenuous overlap between public and private lives. Some employees want to keep their daily relationships strictly professional. It's easier to make tough business decisions that way. Others naturally develop friendships and alliances that are tested within the business-first structure of a corporation. This is where things get complicated.
Two Days, One Night, the great new film by Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, surveys a dramatic scenario where one woman struggles to reconcile such realities after coworkers vote to receive a hefty bonus rather than retain her services. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) responds by begrudgingly visiting each colleague over the course of a weekend, hoping to sway their support back in her favor after the initial vote was tainted by the shady actions of a conniving foreman (Oliver Gourmet). What she finds is a plethora of complex situations taking place behind the veil of communal life.
Coming off a deep bout of depression that left her stricken at home, Sandra still looks beaten down by self-doubt, often sullen in posture and gazing outward with an exhausted stare. She pops anti-depressants and falls into bogs of sadness during her time-sensitive journey. But the Dardennes never frame these emotional divots as anything but a natural human byproduct of facing the horrors of pointlessness head on. Helping Sandra along the way are key allies in the small Solar Company and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), a man whose extreme patience masks a very real sense of panic for the woman he loves.
With its lean narrative and humanist resolve, Two Days, One Night can be seen as a throwback to the type of Hollywood melodramas of the 1930s, lean morality plays that explore the fluctuations of confidence in characters on the brink of social inconsequence. But this is less Frank Capra than Frank Borzage; the film intensely expresses the physical and emotional cost of fighting for your worth, both within the workplace and at home. Sandra's pursuit of economic stability carries certain universal human considerations that the Dardennes subtly infuse within the story.
Such considerations complicate the corporate mentality that everyone is expendable, something personified by Cotillard's determination to avoid making Sandra a victim. Through her eyes, we understand that multiple feelings can coexist in the same frame. Regret and forgiveness permeate the conversation between Sandra and her colleague Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) that occurs on the sideline of a soccer field. When confronted with her request in person, he suddenly bursts into tears, unable to hide the guilt felt since voting for the extra money.
No other recent film gives this level of credence to the power of face-to-face interactions. Some of Sandra's conversations with her coworkers turn horribly violent, while others are surprisingly serene. At one point, she's unable to find the next person on her list. Two Days, One Night examines all of these scenarios with the same level of respect for the characters involved. There are not necessarily heroes or villains, just people with varying degrees of strength and fear. Those who define their lives by the latter are Sandra's greatest obstacles.
Underlying the desperate tone and trajectory of Sandra's search is a sense of pure optimism rarely seen in the Dardennes' work. Take, for instance, the surprisingly organic and beautiful moment when Manu turns up the volume on the car radio playing a particularly melancholy French love song. It's a sign of confidence in Sandra and rebellion against the powerful stranglehold of sadness that has gripped them both for so long. Fittingly, the scene ends with Manu gently taking her hand and smiling.
Two Days, One Night, which opens Friday, Jan. 30, contains a number of these devastatingly true moments, often captured through long takes to allow the actors maximum freedom. Sandra's journey, serpentine and crushing, reveals a modern space where human compassion takes back control from the institutions and ideologies determined to eradicate feeling. The culmination of its impact is staggering.