At the Sydney Film Festival premiere of the Dardenne brothers’ new film, Two Days, One Night, festival director Nashen Moodley described it as “a small film, but a perfect film.” I would go further – this is a small film that revels in its smallness, and while it may not be perfect, it comes very close.
The film follows Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who has recently been laid off from the factory where she works building solar power cells. Her redundancy came following a period of sick leave, due to her depression, after which her boss, M. Dumont (Baptiste Sornin), forced her co-workers to vote between Sandra keeping her job and their annual bonuses. Foul play is suspected however, as Sandra’s friend Juliette (Catherine Salée) has discovered that the foreman Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet) had spoken to some employees before the vote, implying that if she wasn’t laid off, they would be. Dumont agrees to another vote, this time a secret ballot, and Sandra has the weekend, or rather, two days and one night, to convince her coworkers to give up a bonus of 1000 euros so that she can keep her job. Things are looking grim though – in the initial vote, only two people voted to keep Sandra, and she needs a majority, or nine people in total, to win.
Teetering on the edge of a breakdown, while encouraged and supported by her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra traipses from one home to the next, seeking out her colleagues and making her case. The responses are mixed – many of them are struggling to make ends meet, and the difference of 1000 euros is the difference between poverty and survival. Some are willing to be talked around, while others are sympathetic to her case but cannot support her. Some refuse to talk to her or outright refuse to reconsider, and things do at times get violent and out of hand. Meanwhile, Sandra is only just staying on top of her own depression and is almost as unwilling to keep going as her coworkers are to listen. This is a stark portrait of European industrial relations and the working class poor – while Sandra and her family will lose their house without her salary, everyone else is in an equally precarious position. Added to this is the spectre of the foreman Jean-Marc, who calls some workers before Sandra can get to them.
The action of this film is small and slow, and could be easily dismissed as dull or boring. Instead, the Dardenne brothers have created an engaging drama of huge proportions acted out on a small and insular stage. The film benefits from a very real marker for its progress, tension and stakes – Sandra must get nine people to vote for her, and with each new encounter she is just as likely to be pushed back as she is to push forward.
Cotillard is brilliant as a woman just holding it together, never quite veering into the histrionic or the repetitive. As we follow her from one house to the next, hearing her make the same pitch again and again, we make the pitch with her. Cotillard never plateaus in her performance, capturing Sandra’s oscillations between hopeful and despondent, desperate to keep her job but unwilling to beg, ready to give up at any moment.
This is what the Dardenne brothers do best – deeply tender works about working class life in Belgium. In The Kid with a Bike (2011), they created a sparse and unrelenting portrait of life for young people on the fringes of society that nevertheless moved and involved its audience with unexpected gentleness. In Rosetta (1999) they explored the poverty and unemployment of a young woman with raw intensity. Here, we see them bring that same sensibility to Sandra’s plight, capturing the perseverance, desperation, defeat and triumph of those on the edge of survival.
Their naturalistic approach to every element of the film, from lighting to handheld cameras, the lack of score and the completely unostentatious and unapologetic revelation of plot, brings us closer to Sandra’s struggle with herself and her colleagues – at one point the camera holds on her, uncomfortably, as she waits outside a house for her co-worker to return. There is nowhere for Sandra to hide in this scene, no relief from the reality in which she finds herself and which we experience with her. After spending two days and one night with Sandra, the audience cannot claim to have experienced a great deal, but they have experienced it in its unadulterated entirety.
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