Nobody would accuse cinema’s hard-bitten neo-realist duo Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne of playing to modern trends. But with their newest film it’s hard not to think of reality TV competitions or last-tween-standing dystopian sagas riddled with moral sand-trap choices: Be a good person and die/lose or be a bad one and survive/win. In the nervy pressure cooker Two Days, One Night, a hollow-eyed Belgian factory worker (Marion Cotillard) tries to convince her co-workers to keep her on at the company instead of getting a raise. The narrative is similar to those gladiator entertainments — see who wins and who goes home — but it’s structured around a different impulse. Here the protagonist is trying to succeed by convincing the other characters to listen to their altruistic instincts. It’s not the sort of thing people normally bet on.
By the time Sandra (Cotillard), is introduced, she’s already running on empty. But she stills needs to run a gauntlet of humiliation. While Sandra was out on a sick leave that appears to have been psychological in origin, her boss decided that the factory could manage with one less worker. So she gets laid off and her co-workers receive a bonus. In a development that will strike most American viewers used to the pronouncement “You’re fired” being the end of any discussion as unique, Sandra’s friend Juliette (Catherine Salee) convinces the boss to hold a vote the following Monday on whether or not she can keep her job. This leaves Sandra the weekend to go door to door and talk her co-workers into giving up that bonus for her.
Contemplating that mission would send the average person into a spiral of anxiety. For Sandra, who only seems able to stand up because of all the pills she’s popping, it’s like a life sentence. Her soft-voiced and caring husband Manu (Dardennes regular Fabrizio Rongione) gently prods her out of their modest house: “The only way is to stop crying and to fight for your job.” Sandra hurries from one house or apartment to the next, never quite figuring out how to ask people to forfeit desperately-need bonuses. Some conversations go smoother than others, but none are easy. In one of her most carefully physical and nuanced performances, Cotillard evinces all the inner turmoil of a woman despising even the hint that she’s asking for charity while at the same time pushing herself to ask for help.
These nerve-crawling interactions hit the screen one after the other with little letup. All throughout, the Dardennes’ camera often perches in its usual spot, lingering behind Sandra’s head as she stalks quickly from one encounter to the next. Her speed is brittle, nervous in the way of people who are afraid that if they stop they won’t get back up again. Answers range from quickly supportive to “I didn’t vote against you, I voted for my bonus” to “We need the bonus for the patio out back.” To the Dardennes’ credit, what could have so easily turned into a good and bad dichotomy gets slurried with grey right from the start. With maybe one exception, there isn’t a single co-worker who looks as though they couldn’t absolutely use the money. This is, after all, the lower-middle and working-class Belgian demimonde the Dardennes have been working for years. Again they show themselves well attuned to the economic anxieties that weigh on and fray relationships.
That broadly empathetic sensibility helps keep the film from making many easy decisions. But the Dardennes aren’t soft-headed about what is going on here. This is one of the sharpest cinematic depictions of captialism’s underbelly to come along in many years. That’s mostly because Sandra is out there on her own. She might have more of a safety net to fall back on than workers in many countries, and has at least the option of getting a second hearing. But there’s no union standing in support. The workers are just pitched into management’s pitiless match of divide-and-conquer.
Two Days, One Night is scrappy, heart-wrenching drama of the first order. It’s also a scrappy social drama that knows its Marx cold.