Two Days, One Night
Directed by: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongioni
In one pivotal scene in the film, the protagonist gets a call. It’s a colleague. We, the audience, only hear one side of the conversation. What’s interesting is the play of emotions on the protagonist’s face. In the space of a minute or so, we get to see desperation, humiliation, hesitation, diffidence, gratitude, relief… it’s a compelling scene, and when it’s over, we have gone through the wringer ourselves.
Deux Jours, Une Nuit is the Dardenne brothers’ compelling– and sensitive – look into the lives of the working class. Their Sandra (a brilliant Marion Cotillard) is curled up on a couch her apartment in the middle of the day, unable to find the will to do anything. A phone call startles her awake and she seems reluctant to do what the voice at the other end is asking her to do.
Slowly, very slowly, the prior events unfold – Sandra has had mental health issues (it’s not explained, except that she has depression) which are now cured – or at least, under control. This has caused her to be fired from her job at a solar panel factory. Her predicament is serious – without her income, they cannot afford the mortgage on their modest little home. Her husband’s income – Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) is a restaurant worker - is not enough for them and their two children to make ends meet.
The phone call is from Juliette, a colleague. She might, just might, have a second chance; Juliette has talked to Monsieur Dupont and he has agreed to meet Sandra. When Sandra rouses herself from her lethargy and hurries to meet her ex-boss (upon her husband’s urging), he agrees to let them hold a second ballot, a secret one this time, to see if her colleagues will vote to let her have her job back.
It turns out that upon the foreman’s urging, Sandra’s erstwhile colleagues had voted for a bonus. Now, if she wants her job back, she has two days to convince her colleagues to vote for her.
It seems like a no-win situation, but Manu is cheerfully optimistic. If only Sandra would talk to each of her 16 colleagues. So begins Sandra’s odyssey – she travels by car and train and bus and on foot, drinking gallons of water and popping dozens of pills as she tries to meet every single one of them, trying desperately to convince them of her need for that job.
The problem is that, like Sandra, her colleagues aren’t in any better financial circumstances, and a 1,000 euros is a lot to give up. There are children’s tuitions and family bills, home repairs and medical expenses… the film follows Sandra as she meets or talks to each of her colleagues, beginning each conversation the same way.
Given that Sandra holds basically the same conversation with multiple people, the suspense builds up slowly, and with each response, we are quietly rooting for her to succeed. There are no villains here, but everyone is a victim. What makes the film so compelling is that every character’s situation is looked at with sympathy, neither Sandra nor the script judging her colleagues for choosing a bonus over her.
In a way, they have no choice either - they did not choose to be the arbiters of her fate. Sandra's journey is not an easy one, but on the way, she begins to understand her colleagues as she never had, before. ‘I didn’t vote against you,’ one of them tells her defensively, ‘I voted for the bonus.’
Her repetitive spiel takes its toll on her, however, and the responses range from the sympathetic to the unhelpful to the angry, and in one case, leads to an unexpected resolution of marital conflict. As is the case with real life, the resolution is not exactly what Sandra – or the audience – expects, but her choice is a success. Of sorts.
Jeanne-Pierre Dardenne, and his brother Luc, set up Deux Jours, Une Nuit as a sympathetic look into the complexities of depression, and its effects not only on the person suffering from it but also on their loved ones. Sandra’s depression, supposedly controlled, comes in the way of her fighting to get her job back. She would rather take a Xanax and curl up under the blankets. It is only her husband’s constant support and quiet coaxing that pushes Sandra to talking to her colleagues – something that she has to repeat over and over again. The humiliation is galling. Her colleagues' responses affect her mood – 'I feel like a beggar,' she tells Manu, when he exhorts her to overlook a setback.
While the happiness is transient, the tears spiral until all Sandra can do in the moment is to will herself – unsuccessfully – to not weep. Cotillard's expressive eyes that can seemingly pool with tears at any given instance helps anchor the character's fragile hold over her emotional psyche. It's a sensitive performance and Cotillard owns this film. Devoid of glamour (not that she isn’t pretty here), she inhabits an overwrought, weary, strained Sandra with a vulnerability that shows you both her despair and her desperation to save not just her job, but her sense of self-worth.
The tense, often brutal, tempo of the film lies in its repitition - the audience cannot escape the emotional trauma that the protagonist faces; we react vicariously to their responses, and we feel Sandra's desperation. The directors, focusing as always on the trials and tribulations of the working class emphasise that emotion - there’s a degree of separation between Sandra and the other characters, a distance that’s emphasized by the way the shots are framed.
Even with Manu, the physical distances increase and decrease as the emotional distance ebbs and flows between them. Manu is both supportive and urgent; Sandra is feeling both guilty and resentful.
Cotillard is sharply brittle and one wonders how long it will take for her to snap. However, she is warmed by her husband’s unconditional support, a colleague’s repentant tears, another’s bid to do right by her… in the end, what matters is that she fought, and in doing so, discovered that in losing, she has still won.
A bleak social drama, Deux Jours, Une Nuit is still a heart-warming tale that affirms the basic decency of most of humanity, and Sandra's journey allows her to move on from her fragile emotional state to discovering a core of strength that will allow her to fight that battle another day.