Sandra (Marion Cotillard) spends the majority of Two Days, One Night knocking on the doors of her co-workers and modestly pleading with them to decline a significant pay bonus so she can save her job and her family. Some are instantly receptive to her request while others blow her off and even resort to violence. It’s an episodic structure that is executed with measured precision and tension from master Belgian auteurs and critical darlings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid with a Bike, L’Enfant). Acting as the antithesis of the hardworking, stubborn, and desperate titular character from the directing duo’s immaculate Rosetta (1999), Sandra’s glowing and unwavering empathy towards those who stand in opposition to her is the crux of her character and the streamlined grace that runs through this humbled marvel of a film.
Matters become complicated when we learn that Sandra’s dismissal from work was caused by a spell of depression that deemed her unfit and inessential in the eyes of her superiors. She now has two days to gather as many votes as possible from her 16 colleagues before an upright revote is initiated to decide her fate. Perhaps the Dardennes’ best film yet, Two Days, One Night’s decision to tackle a social injustice and completely undercut any predetermined expectation based on the film’s premise is one of the many pleasures the film doles out over its brief 95 minute runtime. “You exist, Sandra,” says her husband Manu (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione) early in the film, reassuring her of her worth in the midst of her chaotic emotional and mental state; the film’s stakes are immediately established and made all the more tangible due to Cotillard’s fascinating and tender performance as a woman miraculously holding it together despite being one step away from seismic ruin.
As an issue film, Two Days, One Night wisely avoids any spells of didactic storytelling. Maestros of narrative economy, the Dardennes frame each of Sandra’s confrontations with an often staggering dramatic heft that propels her to keep moving forward. Small victories are the usual Dardenne currency and remain that way with the emotional complexities that surface from scene to scene. To say anything more of the film’s specific character moments would spoil the urgency, beauty, and heartbreak that the film so deftly teeters between.
As per usual with the Dardenne brothers, every action, scene, and movement is fused with the momentous weight of a life on the brink, and, in some cases, a miracle on the horizon. Standing pat with their repetitive yet vital fairy tale setups and deft poeticism that never seems to falter despite its familiarity, the proceedings exude a not-so-surprising affinity for life, human agency, and stark intimacy. The moral complexities on display achieve a harmonious balance between plausibility and surprise, pushing the film so far past the expected snapshot of blue collar Belgian life.
As Monday morning quickly comes around and the new vote takes place, Two Days, One Night builds to a powerful finale that is impossible not to be moved by. The Dardenne’s intended acts of solidarity and verisimilitude come full circle as the film’s central fighting spirit miraculously finds new life in authentic ways that feel true to the characters. There are no significant revelations, but the strong sense of compassion on display in this compact drama is nothing short of life-affirming. Two Days, One Night is not only one of the festival’s premiere highlights, but also one of the essential great films of the year.
— Ty Landis