So, it’s been a while, but I thought I’d restart posting film reviews by considering one that I saw when it came out (last August) and is too good not to write about. This will mark the beginning of a series of tardy reviews but eventually, hopefully, I’ll get up-to-date and start posting more contemporary fare.
What superlative to use when describing this film from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne? Magnificent? No, it’s too understated for that. Wonderful? Well, not really, there’s a bit too much in the way of sadness to apply that label without qualification, though there is wonder too. Perfect? A bit of an overstatement but now we’re getting somewhere. Two Days, One Night grabbed me from the outset and didn’t let me go. It’s like an adrenalin filled action film without, well, the action (meaning explosions, at least of the conventional kind).
Marion Cotillard must be the first point of commendation; her performance is almost flawless, deftly covering the full gamut of human emotions that her character, Sandra, goes through as the story unfolds. From the moment that she is told that she can save her job, but only by convincing more than half of her colleagues to forego their bonuses, we are with her every step of the way, and Cotillard doesn’t stumble in her portrayal of the highs and lows. This unflinchingly human portrayal, combined with the ever-present and approaching titular deadline is what makes it impossible to turn away from the film. The Dardenne brothers ladled pressure on a performer who can handle it and the result is captivating.
The audience feel that pressure too and though, at times, it can seem like an overly-convenient narrative tool but it generally gives the film, and Sandra, an abiding sense of purpose. This is not, however, an overly fast-paced film; it fits a lot in but gives enough space for important moments to be explored and to unfold in ways that feel unhurried and natural. This plays out, in part, in the portrayal of the emotional journey that Sandra goes both alone and in her intimate relationships with her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and children. This is all handled well but I think the portrayal of the tension between Manu’s desire to support Sandra, and her desire not to be controlled by him, and to make her own decisions (even when they run against what he sees (and, perhaps, we see) as her best interests) is a particular strength. This is one of the real complexities of adult relationships, and it is convincingly conveyed. The only element of her personal story that feels less-well-handled is the matter of her mental health condition, which felt like an unnecessary and misjudged addition to the storyline. This is not because the impact of such circumstances wouldn’t have a particular effect on someone with such a condition, but because it’s remarkably difficult to convey the complexity of such conditions (hence why I remain unconvinced by Blue Jasmine). Amongst everything else that the film is trying to portray, this element felt crammed in, and thus hurried and unsubtle. Further, and in relation to the political intent that I turn to below, I don’t think that purpose would have been lost without this element; the situation that Sandra finds herself in would be stressful for anyone, whether they have mental health issues or not.
By contrast to the above criticism we don’t just get to see the intense impact of the story on Sandra but also, to a greater or lesser extent, on the whole series of characters whom she must talk to. Their performances are universally excellent (though I always wonder how accurately I can judge this when I’m reading subtitles rather than listening to a language that I understand, and thus can interpret in terms of emotional indicators) and the characters encompass the full range of reactions that we might expect to being asked to sacrifice some of their hard-earned money to save a colleague’s job. Like the ever-present deadline, this roll-call of characters could have felt like another constructed narrative device but, to the Dardenne’s credit, it never does. Instead, it feels real. I’ve never been in a situation like the one portrayed here but I suspect the responses would be this complex and diverse. That much would also be true, again, without the presence of mental health issues, though admittedly their presence in the story serves as an important reminder that people who take time off work for such reasons represent an additionally marginalised group in society. The film shows that others can fail to give such people the credit of the doubt, explaining their absence from the job with reference to negative attributes rather than by understanding that, at times and for good reason, they struggle with life.
So, as a portrayal of a intense and moving human story, Two Days One Night doesn’t just stand up, it excels. But it’s much more than that too. It’s also a potent critique of the power relationship between employer and employee(s). Whilst some of Sandra’s colleagues have horrible responses to her request I always sensed, at least to some small extent, that there were reasons for their aggression or dismissal. They were not demonised but humanised. The only characters who come close to being aloof and inhuman are her boss and foreman, the former of whom is the originator of the deadline that drives the story. In this way in particular, though with the film in general too, I think the Dardenne’s tip their political hand. The film might have been strengthened with more consideration of human characteristics and motivations of the antagonists but it doesn’t feel like a major omission. This is because the film focuses on the consequences of their decisions rather than the reasons for them, and the former is a big enough topic in itself (perhaps a companion piece would be fitting; I’d watch it). And those consequences are stark, not only in terms of the exhausting two-day race against the clock that Sandra must undertake, but also in the choices that are imposed on her colleagues. Many of them need their bonuses and some of them want their bonuses but none of them can afford to give up the money lightly. Crucially, and ultimately, they are being asked to choose between altruism and egotism, between solidarity and individualism. It seems clear where the Dardenne’s sympathies lie but it never feels like they’re hammering the message home. Just choosing to tell this particular story in a well-rounded and balanced way was enough to make the point.
Two Days, One Night, then, is an excellent portrayal of Sandra’s personal emotional journey and her interactions with a rich cast of characters who have human responses to her situation. On top of that it is a well-observed analysis of the capacity of jobs, and those who control them, to be exploitative and divisive. Sandra’s response to the circumstances are liberating for her, for some of her colleagues and, ultimately, for the audience too.