‘Two Days, One Night’ depicts an uphill battle

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“Two Days, One Night” is a curiously titled film by the Dardennes Bothers. It actually takes place over the course over a span that starts on Friday and does not conclude until the following Monday. It is set in Searing, an industrial town in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium.

The film plops the viewer in medias res. Two women, Sandra Bya (Marion Cotillard) and her friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée), are chasing after a man (Baptiste Sornin), who is about to drive out of the parking lot, about to commence his weekend. He turns out to be the owner of the factory, where the pair works.

Sandra has apparently just received some bad news. As the film unfolds, we incrementally learn what is going on. This is the narrative technique employed by the Dardennes. They abstemiously dole out information, often leaving the audience to speculate about salient contextual matters. Some have hailed this approach. Others will find it disconcerting.

Sandra is a working class gal. She us employed in a small plant that manufactures solar panels. Sandra has been out on medical leave for clinical depression. In her absence, the other employees work overtime shifts. They are able to make their quotas without Sandra.

Management has come up with a bottom line proposal. The sixteen employees are presented with an option. They can either authorize the firing of Sandra as redundant and receive a bonus of 1,000 euros. In the alternative, they can allow her to stay on and forego the bonus. The outcome of this exercise in democracy is that self-interest prevails. Overwhelmingly, Sandra’s colleagues vote for a bonus and her termination.

It seems that the matter has been definitely resolved. However, an agitated Juliette cites a putative procedural flaw in the voting. The foreman (Olivier Gourmet) had apparently lobbied for Sandra’s firing. He has misrepresented that the boss preferred that Sandra be fired. However, the boss disclaims that he expressed no such inclination. He defers to the request by Sandra and Juliette that a new secret ballot be held on Monday.

That leaves Sandra with a weekend to convince the majority of her colleagues to switch their vote. Can she persuade them to waive their considerable bonus?

It becomes apparent that unless Sandra does, she her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and two young children (Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry) will have to abandon their rental home and return to subsidized government housing. They dread the prospect.  However, to avoid this, Sandra will have to overcome her ongoing depression and individually lobby her fellow employees for reconsideration. Sandra despairs that she will be placed in the humiliating position of begging for her job. However, her supportive husband insists that Sandra can pull it off.

Cotillard won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the diminutive French chanteuse, Edith Piaf, in “La Vie en Rose.” In it, Cotillard was elegantly coiffed and cotured as befitting an accurate depiction of her character. Here, she appears sans makeup with casual clothes and a makeshift ponytail. She is a woman on the edge of existential survival, not only financially, but psychologically. It echoes the bleak prospects confronted by her character in her last film, “The Immigrants.” In it, she portrayed a newcomer to these shores in early 20th century, who is reduced to prostitution. Even with spare dialogue, Cotillard conveys her character’s  internal turmoil. In addition, she jettisoned her natural French accent for the Belgian inflection of the Wallonia region.

As with their other films, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne jointly wrote, produced, and directed “Two Days, One Night” together. Proceeding with small budgets that dictate bare bones production values, they focus on the travails of the working class. The Dardennes are darlings of the Cannes Film Festival. They were catapulted to international prominence when their “Rosetta” won the 1999 Palme d’Or. On 2002, Olivier Gourmet, the lead  in Dardennes’ Le Fils won the Best Actor Award at Cannes. In 2005, the Dardennes won their second Palme d’Or for their film. ”L’Enfant.” Their “Le Silence de Lorna” won Best Screenplay at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

“Two Days, One Night” as been showered with critical acclaim. It was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival, where it elicited a fifteen minute standing ovation. Although the film competed for the prestigious Palme d’Or, it did not win. The film became Belgium’s submission to the Oscars. However, it was snubbed by the Academy. Cotillard did receive a nomination in the Best Actress category.

“Two Days, One Night” depicts the uphill battle that a plucky protagonist wages. Courtesy of a strong central performance, it is a moving testament to a downtrodden woman’s resolve in the face of adversity.

*** PG-13 (for some mature thematic elements) 95 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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