Marion Cotillard is on the podium in Two Days, One Night, a movie about determination and, to a larger degree, desperation. She is the star. The sole survivor. Without her, we’d have no insight. Yes, maybe another actress could have played the part, but Cotillard has played it, and she is quietly spellbinding. The rest of the movie sort of conforms around her and gets dragged behind.
Two Days, One Night, directed by the Belgian brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is much like Bicycle Thieves (1948), the Italian neorealist film about a poor father scouring the face of Rome for a bicycle. What’s so important about this bicycle? The bicycle is required for a job, and the father needs a job; he and his wife have been pawning their assets to make ends meet; their house is almost empty. In Two Days, One Night, Cotillard plays Sandra Bya, and she spends most of the movie fighting for votes, votes that will secure her employment.
As the movie opens, she receives a phone call from a colleague. The ballot has been counted. The employees of Solwal, the company Sandra works for, have chosen their bonuses over Sandra’s employment. It’s one of those nasty ultimatums bosses issue when their bank account is running dry and they have to “remain competitive with the Asians”. To make matters worse, Sandra’s recovering from depression. Her foreman refuses to believe she’s making progress and plants discouraging words in the other employees’ ears. Naturally, they’ll choose their hard earned money.
Sandra is tired. She has too many pills to pop, too many domestic issues that need looking after. She and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), have two young kids. They’re at that age where constant attention is needed, lest they stroll onto the road while juggling pizza boxes and get hit by a car. Manu works at a restaurant; by the look of his garb, he is a chef, probably a trainee or an intern, because whatever he’s pulling in isn’t enough to keep the Bya household away from social welfare should Sandra lose her job (the movie never says how much Sandra earns. Solwal deals in solar panels. Is it a lucrative business for underlings?).
Manu has an idea. Sandra should visit each of her colleagues (there are about 16 of them) and try to persuade them to vote for her in the upcoming second ballot. She reluctantly agrees. This sparks a series of house and phone calls in which Sandra has to unlock awkward conversations and beg for votes from people whose impression of her is not all that glamorous. Some of the colleagues say yes. Some say no. Some think about it, then refuse, because they really need the extra thousand Euros. Some hurl abuse. Some don’t even come to the door. This middle chunk of the movie, though crucial to Sandra’s plight, seems heavy and languid. It follows familiar patterns in which a group of important decision makers must adopt the good, the bad, and the nasty personas. We know from the outset that not all 16 will say yes. What’s more, we can almost predict the reasons for some of the “no”s. The movie trudges along behind Sandra to each front door, to each telephone call, and we hear her opening the conversations with the exact same line. After a while, we become desensitised. The screenplay of Two Days, One Night, written by the Dardenne brothers, would fill out the running time of a short film superbly and concentrate its desperation. As a full length feature, it seems stretched (and it only runs for 95 minutes).
But the story must be told, and even if it’s not told particularly boldly, it is helped a great deal by Cotillard, who coils up inside herself with graceful pity. She is a queen of emotional mayhem and a master of body language. She says a lot in this movie, but she says more when her lips are sealed. If we grow tired of watching her approach door after door, we certainly do not tire watching her. It is an effortless performance.
I raised a question to myself while I sat through Two Days, One Night. Manu urges Sandra to make the visits. She really doesn’t want to do it. She thinks it’s not worth the effort (how would the naysayers treat her if the ballot goes for her and against their bonuses?). But Manu keeps insisting to the point of vexation. Sandra is so discouraged that she takes a drastic measure that puts everyone on alert. We understand that Manu doesn’t want his wife to give up so easily, that a job is always worth fighting for. But if I were him, and I could see the physical unhappiness of my wife, wouldn’t I acquiesce to her surrender and help her find a new job instead?
Best Moment | Any scene with Cotillard, except the Worst Moment.
Worst Moment | The singing in the car scene.