‘Two days, one night’ to fight for your livelihood

The Dardennes capture a desperate, and startlingly human dilemma

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Marion Cotillard as Sandra in “Two Days, One Night”; Rating: PG-13, Grade: A-

The promise of drama is tension and conflict, but we tend to inflate drama with premises that lose any sense of relatable human connection. We long for the impossible because that is what screenwriters and directors in the studio system have fed us. I liken it to fast and/or processed foods, bulked up with artificial additives that aim to trigger hormonal responses, lighting up our emotional switchboards. This choice is the cheap, quick option; it leaves us soft and content because it meets the definition of escapism that gets carted out whenever we talk about what movies are supposed to provide us. Escape from the daily grind. Escape from the news cycle. Escape, for a few hours, from the problems and realities of work and family.

So, what are Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne doing with their new film “Two Days, One Night,” which boldly (and counter-intuitively) dares to present all-too real human drama? Do we want to see Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a distraught young mother and wife, struggle to overcome her own self-doubt as she solicits the support of her co-workers for a vote that would allow her to maintain her job? Sandra has a single weekend to make personal door-to-door appeals to her co-workers, convincing them to agree to a second secret ballot vote come Monday morning that will take away promised bonuses, thereby insuring that management will have enough money to pay her salary.

To make matters worse, Sandra is internally compromised, beset by crippling depression and dependent upon medication to keep what fragile balance exists. She is a small figure, frail and not at all the kind of woman who would be comfortable, even under the best of circumstances, to stand face-to-face with individuals and make such a plea.

And there is a pendulum swing in the way Sandra’s visits must play out; for every employee who pledges to vote on her behalf, another decides not to, and it is difficult to disagree with their rationales. In most cases, the bonuses mean not just extra money to be tucked away in savings accounts, vacation plans with families or additions to homes (although, in one instance, this is true), but a needed infusion to pay for school tuition or supplemental income to boost the household up to the bare minimum.

What we see are people forced into a complex moral choice – self-interest versus altruism. And the Dardennes use the dilemma as a personal test for each and every member of the viewing audience. How would we vote? Quickly and quite strategically, we find ourselves identifying with the employees Sandra tracks down. She stands before them, and by extension us, asking for a reprieve, one that, given a simple twist in perspectives or decisions from management, we might have ended up in, instead of Sandra.

It is a canny and skillful use of a fictional narrative to document a situation teeming with real, intimate drama. We see Sandra’s weaknesses, how she might truly be unfit for the rigors of the job, but we also cannot help but understand how we might respond just as she has. We might stumble, fall and feel it just isn’t worth fighting the good fight anymore. But we would hope to have a partner like Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), a loyal husband and father willing to stand at our side, no matter what – cheering and cajoling, demanding and browbeating when necessary.

By the end, the Dardennes also use the pendulum swing to shift the perspective back to Sandra, so that we see this woman renewed by the effort, able to stand on her own. The key to cementing that realization, of course, is Cotillard, an actress of note not because she’s a great and alluring beauty (although she certainly can be when she wants), but because she is able to convince us that she is one of us. She is able to conceal her inner resolve until it can be played to maximum effect. Watching her weave this spell is truly special and something that will last fare beyond a mere couple of days and nights.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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