Two Days, One Night (IFC/Sundance Selects, PG-13)

two days_one_night_75Their new film, Two Days, One Night, certainly ranks among their best, and does a good job of encapsulating what to expect of a film from the Dardennes.

 

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Though they’ve never made a particularly bad film, I’m at the point where I keep expecting (wanting?) to see Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, to fail. The closest they’ve come to failing at this point in their career was with 2008’s Lorna’s Silence, which was just pretty good, compared to the excellence of some of their best work (2002’s The Son, 1999’s Rosetta). Counterintuitive though it may seem, I can’t begin to explain why I keep expecting them to make a bad film. My best guess is because all of their films are very similar—they tend to be very realistic, ground-level, almost documentary-like accounts of struggling blue collar people in France—and their best work seems to have come more than a decade ago.

Or has it? Their new film, Two Days, One Night, certainly ranks among their best, and does a good job of encapsulating what to expect of a film from the Dardennes. They’re aided greatly by the presence of Marion Cotillard in the lead role; it goes without saying that Cotillard is one of the great treasures of film acting right now, and she elevates anything she’s in. Though their aesthetic is cheap and intentionally low-fi, this isn’t the first time the Dardennes have worked with a major French actor (see: Cécile De France in 2011’s The Kid with a Bike). But this is the first time that the big actor really brought something major to the film.

Cotillard plays Sandra, a traditionally Dardenne-esque blue collar worker with a husband and child to support, who finds out in the beginning of the film that after a possibly-questionable vote, her coworkers have opted for her to lose her job so that they can keep their annual bonuses—most of them have no malice toward Sandra, but budget cuts don’t allow for both Sandra to have a job and for everyone to get their bonuses. The arc of the film follows Sandra trying to convince her coworkers one by one over the course of the weekend to vote in her favor and save her job upon a revote the next work day. One place where Two Days, One Night excels is showing not just Sandra’s struggles, but everyone’s struggles—Sandra’s coworkers need the bonus approximately the same amount as she needs her job, so everyone involved is in a tough position. Not to mention, Sandra is depressive and lacks the assertiveness to really make a convincing case for herself, especially under the stress of short notice.

I was and am amazed at how pleased I was when Cotillard got the Best Actress nomination that was expected to go to either Jennifer Aniston or Amy Adams when the Oscar nominations were announced a few weeks back. It called into relief just how much I came to care about this film, as, while I wouldn’t have expected it, that nomination was one of the ones I was the most happy about that day. And really, this level of involvement with a performance/character serves to achieve the Dardennes’ goals all the more—their films aim at giving the viewer a great deal of empathy for the struggles of its everyday characters, and this is all proof that, in Two Days, One Night, they did a very good job of hitting the mark. | Pete Timmermann

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