Two Days, One Night is directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and stars Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione.
If it weren’t for Marion Cotillard’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress, it’s unlikely that American audiences would be so widely exposed to Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit), a well-made, emotionally engaging, and thought-provoking film written and directed by the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. So good is Cotillard’s performance that at no time is the viewer conscious of watching a famous movie actress play the role of a working class mother of two in danger of losing her job. We see only the person, Sandra Bya, struggling to see her way through very trying circumstances. Over the weekend she must meet personally with fourteen of her co-workers at Solwal, a small company that manufactures solar panels, to ask them to vote for her to keep her job though it will mean that they lose a thousand-Euro bonus.
Shot in the filmmakers’ hometown of Seraing, Wallonia (the French-speaking area of Belgium) in a style that has been described as humanist naturalism, the events are portrayed in as matter of fact a way possible. There is no musical soundtrack to accentuate the drama or convey to us how to feel, no cinematic gimmicks, and no concession to melodrama. The camera focuses primarily on the physical posture and faces of the unidealised human beings, who confront each other in uniformly awkward and tense but often touching or revealing dialogue. All the while, the film paints a detailed picture of the action’s setting: working-class homes; neighbourhood cafes, corner stores and cafeterias; the locker room and executive office at Solwal (quite a contrast, not surprisingly); small yards where workers take on extra jobs to supplement their incomes; buses and cars they use for transportation; a laundromat and the local soccer pitch.
As the movie opens, Sandra is about to return to work after a long sick leave due to a bout of depression from which she has not quite recovered. A phone call from a friend breaks the bad news: in her absence, the boss has realised that the company can get by with one less employee if the sixteen remaining take on extra tasks; he offers them the bonus to compensate for the extra work and allows them to vote on the proposal. It’s 14-2 against Sandra and in favour of the bonus. Sandra feels broken and ready to give up; she pops yet another Xanax and retreats to her bed. But at the urging of her stalwart, supportive husband and a friend she agrees to meet with the boss in person to plead for a second vote. He accedes, and her ordeal begins.
There are ethical and political-economic themes in play here, all merely implied: the pursuit of personal gain versus solidarity with those with whom you share your acts and burdens, for instance; and the common and cavalier assumption of the disposability of workers. More central is the idea that Sandra is fighting for validation as a person of worth. In the middle of the film, Sandra breaks down in the arms of her husband, crying, “I don’t exist! No one cares about me!” We’re never told, but is this perhaps the source of Sandra’s depression? In another scene she wakes with a start from a brief nap in the car on her way to her next confrontation. She had been dreaming that her son, Maxime, was drowning. It is not too hard to see Maxime here as a convenient dream-substitute for herself. In any case, her husband aggressively combats her outburst of dejection and cajoles her into pressing on with her quest.
Each encounter begins with Sandra simply asking co-workers if they would consider voting for her to keep her job. Highly aware of the sacrifices her request entails, and embarrassed to the point of humiliation at the thought of proposing them, she refrains from almost all special pleading. She never asks her co-workers to put themselves in her shoes, nor does she seek their pity. Once she does mention that her family really needs her salary – something they are all acutely aware of anyway – and a few times she says she wants to be with them, working, rather than being alone on the dole. It’s this latter appeal that seems most successful in opening them up to the possibility of supporting her. That and finding out how many others have agreed to switch their vote in her favour. The co-workers’ responses run the gamut from shameful tears at ever having voted against her in the first place to one hothead’s vicious attack on her for trying to steal his money. Between these extremes, perhaps the most intriguing case is a guy who tells her that, though it would be a disaster for him, and he won’t be voting for her, he hopes that the majority will support her, and she will keep her job.
In the end the vote is … No, you should see this excellent movie and find out what happens yourself