Release: Friday, February 6, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Directed by: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
It’s very difficult, if not impossible to sort through Marion Cotillard’s many impressive outings and alphabetize them in terms of brilliance. Go ahead; try it. A career like that of the 39-year-old Parisian trouper is hard to mimic for its consistency and versatility, but now with her Sandra Bya in the picture, recognizing the superlative form of Cotillard becomes much easier. This is it; this is as good as it gets with her.
There’s something Philip Seymour Hoffman-esque about the chameleonic way with which she moves through the industry. Ideally I’m suggesting only the most positive connotation in that comparison, though it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Cotillard has had some difficulty assimilating back into reality on occasion. The rabbit hole reveals its true depth when you’re committed to the verisimilitude of something like Two Days, One Night, the tenth feature film from the Dardenne brothers, one that hinges on intensely psychological performances in its frank examination of workplace competition. Not that the story she’s telling with her fragile character is confusing, but the depths she must plumb within her own mind must surely become tricky to navigate.
At a small solar panel plant in the industrial town of Seraing, Belgium Sandra has experienced a nervous breakdown and has had to take time away from her job to get healthy once again. We come crashing into her life after the fact, observing a listless body burrowing deeply into a couch that can only give her so much comfort. Her phone begins to ring. And ring. And ring. Eventually she goes to answer it, only to be met with some bad news on the other end. The foreman at Solwel has decided in her absence that the company can only justify keeping 16 of its current 17 employees, and those remaining will be able to earn their yearly bonus if they decide to vote the weak link out of the company (read: the severely depressed Sandra).
Two Days, One Night doesn’t exactly play up to the drifter’s fantasy of losing their job and going home happy about it. Even if denial becomes their shadow. The proposition has serious consequences for Sandra and her family — husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and their two children — namely, the roof over their heads is likely to disappear and they will have to “go back on the dole,” as is explained by Sandra in a mostly trembling voice that throughout much of the film comes predicated by her popping an anti-depressant. After she and a helpful coworker convince their boss to have a second, secret ballot on the following Monday (Sandra receives the news on a Friday morning) Sandra must do her best to convince the 16 others to sacrifice their bonus so she can keep her job, and with any luck, her modest home.
Cotillard carries the weight of the world — or at least her present reality — upon shoulders, bony protrusions from underneath a coral tank top, that don’t look like they can take any more. It’s an understated performance to be sure, but confusingly enough that’s an understatement in itself. Her screen presence frequently treads the line (at least in my mind) of method acting to the point where I thought she was actually going to overdose on all those Xanax. That scene was tough to endure. Wonderful Manu, via a sublime performance from Rongione, provides the level of support and sympathy for his ailing wife one expects from a man who’s fully prepared to accept whatever life is going to throw at them after the wedding ceremony. In his finest hour, Manu insists Sandra isn’t reducing herself to beggar status by asking others to technically take pay cuts for her.
Perhaps the greatest achievement the Dardenne’s (who are these guys again, and why is this my first time watching their stuff?) are responsible for is the complete circumvention around manufactured emotion, contrived problem-solving and arguably greatest of all, melodrama. If Sandra falls, and she often does under the stress of these couple of days — quite plausibly the crux of a very trying period in this woman’s life — there are people who will catch her. Her loving husband is obligated to be at the forefront of that list of names, but there are also Solwel employees who may not react the way one might expect in the face of losing much-needed monies.
Quiet drama has all the hallmarks of a truly dark and depressing study of the uglier realities of the working class, but it is buoyed by unwavering positivity in the face of adversity that applies every bit as much to any one of us stepping into the theaters that happen to be showing this. Financial challenges are common, but Sandra’s greatest and most unique obstacle is overcoming herself.
Recommendation: While Cotillard’s character reaps the benefits of communal support, the select few who have managed to find Two Days, One Night undoubtedly reap those of a never-better Cotillard. There is heavy competition for what her finest work is, but for my money it doesn’t get any more impressive than what she effects here in a surprisingly physical and overwhelmingly emotional performance. The argument could be made her presence overshadows everything else occurring here, but the narrative presents such an interesting social dilemma I couldn’t help but buy into this — hook, line and sinker. A terrific film.
Running Time: 95 mins.
Quoted: “I don’t exist. I’m nothing. Nothing at all!”
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