Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night isn't just a great movie – it's a dangerously great movie. It's dangerous because it's the kind of film that makes you realize just how empty and utterly insincere most other inspirational movies are. It's dangerous because it's the rare inspirational film that wants you to empathize with others rather than feel better about yourself. It's dangerous because it confronts us with the often-ignored truth that the people who hurt us the most are still people. This is one of the most profoundly human films I've seen in recent years, and it's arguably a new high point for these two talented directors.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard, Inception) has just been informed that she will be losing her job at a small solar panel factory. She recently took a few weeks of sick leave after suffering a nervous breakdown, and during that time, the company realized that they could get by with one less employee. Without that source of income, Sandra and her family (she has a doting husband and two children) will be forced to go on welfare. However, there may still be a chance for Sandra to save her job: if she can convince the majority of her co-workers to give up their attractive 1000-euro bonuses, the management has agreed to let her keep her position.
The decision seems easy from a moral perspective: surely losing a bonus is worth helping a co-worker keep her job, right? The film quickly makes it clear that such a decision isn't easy for these people on a more practical level. They've been counting on this bonus; planning for months to use it to cover major home repairs, school tuition or other large expenses. To help Sandra, they'll have to make serious sacrifices in their own life.
Two Days, One Night has a repetitive structure – Sandra visits one co-worker after another and quietly begs them to vote in her favor when the company meeting is held on Monday morning – but the movie never feels repetitive, because every single encounter contains different nuances of human behavior. One co-worker turns Sandra down due to intense pressure from his less sympathetic wife. Another turns her down due to serious financial problems, but expresses a sincere desire that the vote will ultimately go in her favor. Another co-worker initially turns her down, but changes his mind on the matter after being approached by Sandra in person – he can't bear the notion of looking into her eyes and telling her he's voting against her. Another offers support without any hesitation. In each and every case, the Dardennes refuse to turn any of the assorted supporting characters into mustache-twirling villains. We're seeing humanity at its best and worst, but the good deeds and the bad ones tend to come with pangs of regret.
Meanwhile, we never lose focus of Sandra's quiet desperation. Cotillard is the biggest star the Dardennes have worked with to date, but it's a tribute to her talent that we never feel as if we're watching a movie star. She so fully inhabits the role she is playing that we stop seeing the actress and begin seeing the character almost immediately. She isn't a plucky go-getter fighting for her right to work, but a fragile, anxious woman fighting back an oncoming tidal wave of depression. Her husband (Fabrizio Rongione, The Kid with a Bike) is always nearby, ready to offer his encouragement and support, and you can see the tenderness and pain in his eyes as he realizes that this is a battle he needs to let Sandra fight on her own.
I won't spoil the outcome of Sandra's mission, but let it be said that the film finishes the story it starts telling – you won't be getting one of those “but does it really matter how things turned out?” endings. Other filmmakers might have been tempted to go that route for thematic reasons, but the Dardennes understand the weight of practical matters too well to simply brush them aside with an artistic flourish. The film's closing scene moved me to tears; offering a concluding grace note of delicate perfection and honest warmth. Throughout the film, we hear Sandra and her co-workers begin or end sentences with variations on the phrase, “If I were in your shoes” - apologies, requests, words of support, words of condemnation, all accompanied by appeals to the golden rule. That rule is one of the oldest and most frequently-repeated maxims in the book (pick your book), but Two Days, One Night recognizes both the genuine beauty and the considerable difficulty of actually living up to that ideal. This is essential viewing.
Two Days, One Night
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2014