With an unprecedented third Palme d’Or firmly in the brothers’ sights, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne return to the Croisette this year with a tale at the hard end of the financial crisis, Two Days, One Night (2014). Shucking off her Hollywood glamour, Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a worker at a factory that makes solar panels which is feeling the economic squeeze. The plant’s boss, M. Dumont (Batiste Sornin), has given the workers a stark choice: they must decide between keeping their €1000 annual bonus or letting Sandra go. Bullied by their foreman Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), who tells them if Sandra isn’t fired one of them will be, they initially vote to selfishly keep their financial incentive.
Dumont decides to allow a secret ballot on Monday and Sandra must attempt to persuade her colleagues to change their minds and vote against their own financial interests after the weekend. Aided by her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and her friend Juliette (Catherine Salée), Sandra begins her awkward, demeaning task. To make matters worse, Sandra has just returned to work having recovered from a bout of depression. The trauma of the bad news looks likely to send her spiralling down once more as she has panic attacks, crying jags and fights the urge to pop pills and retreat to her bed. The sunny weekend provides a summery background to this desperate tale – Sandra and her husband even stop for an ice cream – and her journey is further leavened by moments of hopefulness and joy.
The Dardennes (past incumbents of Cannes’ top prize for Rosetta and L’Enfant) are careful to depict the dilemma of Sandra’s colleagues as a starkly real one. People have babies to care for, houses to furnish and divorces to recover from. To emphasise their own situation, Sandra finds many of them working another job on their weekends just to make ends meet. The fact that – though most express genuine regret and even shame and sorrow at the nature of Sandra’s predicament – there is no real sense of resistance or even protest from the workers is indicative of how far we’ve come in this world of zero hour contracts and weak trade unions. Sandra is supported by her husband and friends, but the whole nightmarish scenario threatens to become too much for her. Yet, despite its title, Two Days, One Night lacks urgency.
Following Sandra as she wanders door to door, the film strays into the monotonous at times. The Dardennes also strain to show everyone in a good light. Sandra’s husband is limitlessly patient – laudable certainly, but robbing the film of drama. There are a couple of villains and one colleague reacts violently, but the reaction is a clunky moment, coming from nowhere in order to inject some vitality into the proceedings. Another false note is the portrayal of depression which feels glib, improbable and driven more by narrative concerns than an accurate depiction of mental illness. Two Days, One Night is well made, and Cotillard and the rest of the cast give assured performances, but its optimism is desperate. By no means the Dardennes’ best work, one wonders if they shouldn’t perhaps stray outside of their comfort zone.