After the critically adored The Kid with a Bike (2011) saw celebrated Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne take a softer approach to telling yet another tale of urban struggle, the brothers return with Two Days, One Night (2014), an agonisingly realistic story about the lengths to which one woman goes to preserve her mental stability. Having avoided casting big-name stars in their previous eight films, the pair go against expectation and install Academy Award-winning French star Marion Cotillard, who gives perhaps her most perfectly realised performance to date. She stars as Sandra, a young mother recouping after the debilitating effects depression has had on her mental and physical wellbeing.
Though she maintains that she’s strong enough to resume her responsibilities both at home and at her job, she is shocked to discover that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus in exchange for her dismissal. Managing to persuade her boss into agreeing to hold another ballot on Monday which will buy her some time, Sandra – cajoled by her supportive husband Manu (Dardennes regular Fabrizio Rongione), uses the weekend to tour the homes of her colleagues in an attempt to convince them to change their minds and forego the substantial lump sum so she can keep her job. An uphill struggle is made ever more difficult however with the various reactions she receives when appealing to each individual’s better natures, which range from empathy to total rejection.
Two Days, One Night’s inherently repetitive, but nevertheless organically engrossing and suspenseful narrative structure gives the Dardennes the opportunity to survey the emotional complexities felt by both Sandra and her co-workers, each straining to merely get by. The power of the brothers’ latest film comes from the filmmaker’s non-judgemental stance on each character’s reaction and ultimate decisions, with many expressing guilt but admitting they need the money for either legitimate personal gain or material benefit. This allows the audience to further engage with and question the moral intricacies the plot yields. Would you take the money or aid a person in desperate need?
Cotillard is outstanding here, playing a woman debilitated by a mental illness she’s desperate to keep under control and motivated by a desire purely to work and provide for her family, to be a better person. “React instead”, Manu tells her when she’s inches from admitting defeat, and watching her both slowly unravel whilst remaining resilient practically in real time, with her anxiety etched across her anguished face, is the film’s great strength. Though it ends on an atypically neater note compared to their earlier, grittier films – signs that they’re softening with age, perhaps – Two Days, One Night is a powerful and absorbing film fuelled by natural tension and a discernibly humanist touch.
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