The Dardenne brothers are about as highly acclaimed as it is possible to be in the world of art house cinema – they’ve won the Palme d’Or at Cannes twice – but they haven’t made much of an impression on mainstream moviegoers. It’s hardly surprising. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne specialise in low-key, naturalistic dramas about life on Belgium’s poverty line. They’re not the sort of directors to get audiences queuing around the multiplex. But their latest film, Two Days, One Night, could be a different matter. Its leading lady is Marion Cotillard, who is by far the most famous person they’ve worked with. And even without her involvement, the film would be the closest the Dardennes have ever got to a conventional Hollywood movie.
Cotillard plays Sandra, a diffident working-class wife and mother who has a lowly job in a solar-panel factory – but not, perhaps, for much longer. Struggling to compete with its Asian rivals, the company has to cut costs, so the boss presents his other 16 employees with a poisonous ultimatum one Friday. Either they lose their annual bonuses and Sandra keeps her job, or they keep their annual bonuses and Sandra loses her job. Naturally, most of them vote for their bonuses, but a loyal friend of Sandra’s arranges another vote on Monday morning. Sandra now has the weekend to go from door to door, asking her colleagues to reconsider. If they don’t, then she and her family may be forced into social housing and she may slip back into the debilitating depression from which she has only just recovered.
All the elements of a classic Hollywood nail-biter are in place: a ticking clock, a mission that veers between triumphs and crushing setbacks and a virtuous protagonist who isn’t just battling external opponents,but also her own personal demons. There’s even a calamity at the end of the second act, followed by a re-energised return to the fray when Sandra and her husband psyche themselves up by singing along to Van Morrison’s Gloria on a car stereo. If you were compiling a beginner’s guide to screenwriting, you could mention Two Days, One Night alongside 12 Angry Men and Erin Brockovich as a perfectly structured, David-and-Goliath yarn.
But that’s not the whole story. The Dardennes’ new film may be their most straightforward, but there are some conspicuous differences between their modest social-realism and the grandstanding of a Hollywood issue drama. The key difference is that while Two Days, One Night is concerned with injustice and inequality, it doesn’t have any tear-jerking speeches or rousing orchestras, and there’s no cigar-chomping arch-villain just waiting to receive his comeuppance. Sandra is always polite and reserved as she asks her colleagues to sacrifice their bonuses, and most of the people who turn her down have solid reasons for doing so. There are no caricatures in the Dardennes’ gripping film, just a variety of ordinary Belgians struggling to make ends meet. One provocative detail is that the bonuses amount to 1,000 euros per employee – not a colossal amount, but colossal to the people in question.
But if the money at stake is relatively paltry, and the arguments are relatively civilised, we’re left in no doubt that Sandra is being subjected to a cruel and humiliating ordeal. As she traipses around the town, intruding on people’s weekends and glimpsing their private lives, she’s made to feel like a begger and a thief. And the process isn’t much more comfortable for her colleagues, who are backed into choosing between Sandra and their own families. As much as we may cheer on our heroine and her pleas for solidarity, it slowly becomes clear that, whatever the outcome of the ballot, it’s the factory workers who will suffer, while the senior managers will have got what they wanted. Two Days, One Night glows with compassion, but it’s hard to think of another feature film that depicts our current economic troubles with such trenchant fury.
A lot of that has to do with Cotillard, who must be in line for another Oscar nomination. Her understated performance never jars with the work of her less well-known co-stars, but she conveys a tremendous amount with the smallest, quietest gestures. When you see the fierce, tearful grin on her face after one successful encounter, and the sleepwalking shuffle she adopts when her depression threatens to engulf her, it’s plain that she is one of the finest cinema actors we have.
It’s tempting to say that she disappears into the role, but that wouldn’t be quite true. As subdued and vulnerable as Sandra may be, Cotillard still looks like a movie goddess, even in minimal make-up, supermarket clothes and her hair yanked back into a scruffy pony-tail. The fact that the other characters don’t appear to notice her luminous beauty may be the one dishonest aspect of a truthful film. Would none of her male colleagues make a suggestive remark? Would nobody point out that she doesn’t need a job in a solar-panel firm when she could be making a fortune as a model? And what about the wives of the colleagues she visits? Let’s face it. If Marion Cotillard knocked on your door and announced that she had to speak to your husband on a matter of urgency, you might not invite her in.
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