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.
Juliette is indignant for another reason: She suspects that the vote was tainted by their callous foreman, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), who apparently doesn’t like Sandra, and suggested strongly that if her co-workers didn’t vote for the bonus, one of them might get terminated instead.
Spurred on by Juliette, Sandra races back to work and wins a concession from Dumont: He’ll abide by the results of a second vote — via secret ballot — on Monday morning. If at least seven other workers are willing to switch their votes, to back her, she can stay.
And, so, Sandra faces the prospect of contacting each one during the course of the intervening Saturday and Sunday, in an attempt to regain her job.
Oh. My. God.
What follows could be considered 14 different mini-dramas, as the weekend progresses: 14 perceptive, even ingenious, variations on a theme. Assuming Sandra can even work up the courage to embrace this dreadful trial — by no means a certainty — what will she face? Will her co-workers be defiant? Angry? Ashamed? Will they even talk to her? Will implicit friendships wither in the face of 1,000 Euros?
Because, as Sandra tearfully insists to Manu, she fully understands the dilemma. It’s a lot to ask of people who probably need the money just as badly, who have bills just like she and her family do.
Factor in Sandra’s already fragile state, and the fact that this crisis is making her pop Xanax tablets like peppermints — which Manu can’t help noticing, in mounting concern — and the task seems more impossible than Hercules’ 12 labors. We suspect — fear — that even one rejection will push Sandra over the emotional edge.
And yet we want her to try, not only because it’s the right thing to do — to fight for her sense of self-worth — but also because we want honor, principle and human decency to win out.
Rest assured, the Dardennes don’t make it easy.
Sandra’s subsequent journey of the soul is both gripping and sickening, intimate and demeaning on a level that’s supremely uncomfortable: a slow-motion train wreck that we suspect we shouldn’t witness, but can’t help watching anyway.
The journey doesn’t begin well — no surprise, there — and we fear that Sandra will surrender to misery and self-pity before she’s given redemption a fair shot. At lowest ebb, then, with her expectations thus far shattered, the first glimpse of hope is so unexpected — such a powerful relief — that we almost cry out in exaltation.
(Actually, I’d be willing to be that some theater audiences have done just that.)
Fiendishly cunning, those Dardenne boys. They have us by our throats.
So does Cotillard. The entire 95-minute film is from Sandra’s point of view; no scenes take place without her being in frame. That’s a lot to ask of any actress, but Cotillard holds our attention from beginning to end; indeed, her performance is shattering. Sandra’s shame and humiliation become difficult to endure, but Cotillard doesn’t quite take her character to the point where we’d loathe her weakness; we never lose hope that she’ll rally, find the wellspring of strength, become more defiant.
Cotillard does the bravest thing possible, for an actor: She often stands, alone and silent, as cinematographer Alain Marcoen patiently holds on her tired, anguished and often dejected features. It's not easy to do “nothing” and make it look so compelling; the Dardennes clearly trust Cotillard, and she rewards their faith.
All of the supporting players give strong, naturalistic and believable performances. The kind ones radiate the discomfort we’d expect, under such circumstances, particularly because Sandra remains so unfailingly polite and sympathetic to the opposing point of view. There aren’t any villains here — well, maybe one or two — but instead simply a small knot of people caught in the ultimate awkward situation.
Some of these co-stars have no prior acting experience, as with Timur Magomedgadzhiev, who is nonetheless quite memorable as Timur. Christelle Cornil makes an equally strong impression as Anne, whose sympathies lie with Sandra, but who must contend with a domineering husband.
Rongione’s Manu is the ultimate devoted and loyal spouse: just the right blend of cheerleader and concerned lover.
We wonder, throughout, how this story will conclude. Sandra surely deserves a victory, given the effort and agony endured ... but is that consistent, in the real world, with humanity’s tendency toward selfish behavior? The Dardennes slyly cap their morality tale with a slight twist that you’ll never see coming ... and yet it’s perfect.