Featuring the best performance of the year so far, the Sydney Film Prize-winning Two Days, One Night is a tale of injustice and persistence whose simplicity belies its emotional and political poignancy.
The latest from two-time Palme d’Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne hews closely to their social realist/humanist template. It follows their trademark stripped-back aesthetic – nothing flashy, no non-diegetic music, just straightforward filmmaking whose pitch-perfect precision makes it look easy – shared with a narrative so bare boned you question their ability to fill 95 minutes. But by the film’s end they have presented an emotional, authentic insight into one small community alongside resonant political reflection.
We open on Sandra (Marion Cotillard) in the Belgian apartment she shares with her husband (Fabrizio Rongione) and two sons. We learn through a series of tense conversations that she has recently been dismissed from her workplace, a solar panelling company, after her colleagues were forced to choose between accepting a 1,000 Euro bonus or allowing Sandra to return to work after an extended absence. She lost the first vote two to fourteen, but has been granted a private ballot on Monday – giving her two days and one night (well, two nights, if you want to nitpick) to change seven of her workmates’ minds.
I want to throw all kinds of praise at Cotillard’s acting in Two Days, One Night (especially after her relatively flat work in The Immigrant). I want to shower her with superlatives like ‘transcendent’ and ‘amazing,’ but neither is an especially good description of the work she’s doing here. Cotillard delivers a performance that could’ve easily slid into showy awards-bait – she does her fair share of weeping and wailing – but is instead defined by authenticity. Just her physicality alone – the minutest hunch in her shoulders, as though the weight of the world is dragging her down – surpasses anything else I’ve seen in the cinema in 2014.
Much of that physical tension is linked to the reason for Sandra’s sick leave due to mental illness. Her ailment is generally described in the film as ‘depression’, but, having watched my wife battle through anxiety over the last couple of years, her symptoms are unmistakably those of someone experiencing an anxiety disorder, where every task – even as simple as picking up the phone to call a colleague – has the potential to transform into an impenetrable obstacle.
My wife was fortunate enough to work in a workplace supportive of her ailment, allowing her the necessary sick leave and a comprehensive return-to-work plan (though I don’t intend to mischaracterise her experience as ‘easy’). But I suspect Sandra’s experience is more representative of the struggles faced by people trying to balance a debilitating mental illness with the necessity of employment, perhaps best encapsulated by Sandra’s conversation with a co-worker, Hicham (Hicham Slaoui) working “on the black” (illegally) at a local grocery store.
“Try to see it from my side,” she says. “I’m better. I want to work and earn a salary again.”
Hicham explains that Jean-Marc, a higher-up in the solar panel company opposed to Sandra’s return, had called sowing seeds of doubt.
“I told him he was wrong but…” explains Hicham. “He thinks you can’t work so well after being sick.”
Sandra is defeated. Her words stick in her mouth, and she’s unable to continue the conversation, walking out silently. This is the reality for so many struggling through mental illness; forced to justify themselves and argue their coherency just as they’re in the worst position to face such social confrontation. It’s patently unjust but implicitly encouraged by the tenets of capitalism, which sets the weakest members of society to scrabble against one another for scraps while their employers gravely inform them that they are responsible for their iniquities inflicted upon them.
Despite the simplicity of its story and its brevity, Two Days, One Night is powerfully revelatory in this mode. It’s arguably political; undeniably humanistic. Sandra’s encounters with her colleagues threaten to become repetitive, but each reveals new insight into the experience of living day-to-day as a lower-class worker in Belgium. Almost every one of Sandra’s colleagues spends their weekends scraping by with part-time work, illegally or otherwise – coaching a soccer team, or selling tile scraps, or repairing cars. They tell their stories of barely being able to support their families and we see the wreckage left by a system that reinforces disadvantage. Quite an achievement for an ostensibly simple story about two days, one night and a workplace ballot.