Two Days, One Night is perhaps the most “Hollywood” film yet from directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, though earning the distinction didn’t take much effort. The Belgian brothers specialize in naturalistic, slice of life films that resist easy classification. Filming with intense handheld intimacy (that’s not fly on the wall so much as fly hovering over your shoulder), Dardenne plots are slow to develop, and their use of music is almost strictly diegetic. Two Days, One Night maintains the brothers’ preferred shooting style and disinterest in soundtrack royalties, but jumps right into an invitingly structured plot that features a star big enough to be called one.
That star is Marion Cotillard, in a role that would call for a lot of plump tears and heavy garment rending, were melodramatic shorthand for depression what the Dardennes were asking for. Cotillard plays Sandra, a married mother of two living in Belgium. The opening shot sees her waking up in bed at home, but not for the first time that day. Showing neither the energy nor the desire to stay active while a tart bakes in the oven, you get the sense that Sandra is a person living from obligation to obligation.
What the Dardennes understand, and what makes Two Days, One Night such a rich, truthful examination of mental illness, is that depression is not a singular emotion. Sadness is what Sandra feels after finding out she’s been laid off from her job, so that 16 fellow employees may receive their annual bonus. Depression is the combination of doubt, self-pity, guilt, and wounded pride that make her feel helpless when given the weekend to convince her co-workers to save her job.
As the main bread-winner in a household of four, the loss of her job would force Sandra onto the dole, though even the fear of government assistance isn’t enough to get her to fight for her job. It’s only after great cajoling from her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and co-worker, Juliette (Catherine Salée) that she sets out to fight for her job, and convince others to do the same. The film proceeds to follow Sandra as she faces the people who, for their own various reasons, would let her go for 1,000 euros.
Shot with arresting long takes, each conversation between Sandra and one of her co-workers is, as is often the case with real world confrontation, a matter of dissolving pleasantries. The Dardennes never cut, or play favorites with camera angles. The staging of each scene provides passing insight into these people’s lives, drawing out the tension as we learn if they will support a colleague in need, or if Sandra can change their mind otherwise. Though our time with them is brief, the characters that come to decide Sandra’s fate are drawn with realism, complicating our feelings the more Sandra saving her job means asking of these people more than just a “yes” vote.
The script and Cotillard’s performance aren’t afraid to make Sandra difficult, and even outright caustic when the emotional truth of her situation leads there. The flagellating guilt that can spawn from needing a support system only feeds deeper into Sandra’s paralyzing self-pity, causing her to sometimes lash out at those trying to help. But it’s that tested courage of those around Sandra that’s often as remarkable as her own. Two Days, One Night is as much a tribute to those who live with depression-sufferers as it is to those fighting the disease. It’s a film punctuated by moments of beautiful empathy, in forms both subtle and stirring. For every deliberate offer of surprising or earned compassion, there are many more trivial acts of kindness that go unnoted over the course of a weekend.
Casting Cotillard is the only real “gimmick” the Dardennes need to make Two Days, One Night sing. She’s been so lovely and memorable in other films that your rooting interest is practically automatic. It’s because of that ingrown likeability, and Cotillard’s stunning depth as an actress, that Two Days, One Night doesn’t have to cheat its portrayal of the ugly qualities Sandra’s disease brings out in her, or the inspiring day-to-day nobility of trying to face them.
Like much of their previous work, Two Days, One Night sees the Dardennes examining honest, human emotion with the insight and specificity of anthropologists. Even when it seems like the directors have sneakily found a way to tie up the story in a nice bow, they don’t blink. The heavy plotting (well, by Dardenne standards) requires the occasional conveniently timed phone call or run-in, but the resulting portrait of a woman in crisis is brought to life with pain and warmth that few films achieve. Fewer still could manage it with such humility.
A staggeringly powerful examination of depression, Two Days, One Night is brimming with the kind of humane sensitivity that you expect from the Dardennes.