Film Review: ‘Two Days, One Night’

Narrowly missing out on a hat-trick of Palme d’Or wins at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, socially conscious Belgian directing siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne return with the uplifting Two Days, One Night (2014), their first work to be bolstered by whom many would consider to be an A-list star in the guise of French actress Marion Cotillard. The premise is a simple one: Cotillard’s depressive family worker has two days and one night to convince her fellow colleagues to reject a potential bonus so she may keep her job and continue to support her husband and children. A sharply-drawn morality tale for a Europe still reeling from the global economic downturn, the Dardennes are at their plausible best.

Cotillard plays Sandra, an amiable mother of two who – we’re quickly informed – has only recently returned to her aforementioned job after a bout of depression (significantly, to roots of this malcontentment are never revealed to the audience). Rocked by the news of her imminent dismissal and resigned to her fate, only the encouragement of her loving and compassionate partner Manu (a warm turn from Fabrizio Rongione) convinces her to approach her elusive teammates over the weekend. Embraced by some, rebuked by others and even threatened with physical violence by one unsavoury individual, Sandra must endure both sympathy (which she herself detests) and cold contempt in near equal measure, knowing that only a majority ruling on Monday morning will ensure her position at the Belgian company.

Cotillard, in arguably her most satisfying role since her performance as Edith Piaf in the Oscar-winning La Vie en Rose (2007), is utterly convincing as the put-upon factory worker forced to beg in order to safeguard her very livelihood. There’s none of the stilted awkwardness that appeared to creep into her various English-language parts, replaced instead with the sort of effortless naturalism that has made her one of France’s finest exports. Depression comes in many guises, and too often has mainstream cinema favoured its more manic incarnations for eye-catching affect. Sandra’s ailment manifests itself as far more internal, melancholic pangs of crushing low self-esteem, making her Herculean task all the more difficult. However, like all great triumphs of the human spirit, our heroine is able to call upon her own reserves of inner-strength and the backing of her family and work friends (including Christelle Cornil’s Anne) in her time of need.

Whilst it may fall just short of the Belgian brothers’ very best work (L’Enfant and Rosetta remain the high watermarks), partially due to its occasional un-Dardenne-like lapses into melodrama, Two Days, One Night still sits comfortably near the top of the pile when it comes to this year’s finest European cinema offerings. A resolutely humanist work that sympathetically explores the far-reaching effects financial instability and sudden redundancy can have upon the 21st century family unit. Largely avoiding unhelpful and unnecessary sentimentality in its honourable pursuit of verisimilitude, this is just the sort of richly layered, individual versus hive mind underdog tale that the likes of Frank Capra and Sidney Lumet used to do so well, and is arguably the type of narrative that we need to see more of in the current climate.

Two Days, One Night featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here

Daniel Green