Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.20.15
This one’s brutal.
Writer/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have uncorked an absorbing splash of cinema verité that is no less gripping for its low-budget origins: a working-class calamity that feels like it could happen to a friend, a neighbor ... or even you.
The disturbing script is a sly update of classic psychological short stories such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button.” Both explore the superficiality of morality and personal integrity: the point at which seemingly good people will cave, their ethics forgotten in the face of temptation, reward ... or fear.
The Belgian Dardenne brothers’ Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) revolves around a similarly ghastly quandary, in this case as it affects the victim.
We meet Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a working-class Belgian mother, just as she has completed a medical leave of absence. The cause remains unspecified, but clues point to a nervous breakdown of some sort; she’s clearly fragile, emotionally shattered. She’s resting at home, regaining her strength after (perhaps) her first day back at work on the production floor at Solwal, a small company that manufactures solar panels.
The phone rings, with grim news from her co-worker and best friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée). The company owner, Mr. Dumont (Baptiste Sornin), has decided that things have been almost as efficient during Sandra’s absence. Wanting to be “fair,” he has put the matter to a vote among Sandra’s blue-collar colleagues: If they agree to work harder in her continued — permanent — absence, each will receive a bonus of 1,000 Euros.
In other words, if they vote for the bonus, Sandra will be fired.
The vote goes 14 to 2, against. This is the news that Juliette — one of Sandra’s lone supporters — has just called to share, this late Friday afternoon.
Sandra is frantic; she and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), need their combined incomes to meet mortgage payments on the home they’ve recently purchased, in a triumphant step up from public housing. It’s impossible to chart the profusion of emotions that cross Sandra’s face, as she tries to absorb what has happened, and the implications behind this catastrophe.
Cotillard earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for this role, and it’s easy to see why; she slips persuasively into Sandra’s skin. Because of both her performance and the script’s real-world honesty, we quickly forget that we’re watching a drama; it feels much more like a documentary. An awful one, at that.