Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night screened Sunday and Monday at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Sundance Selects will release the film theatrically beginning on December 24 in New York City.
“Uplifting” is one of those words, like “unique” or “compelling,” that has been so abused that it has come to mean almost the opposite of what it once did, but it should be dusted off and restored to its dictionary definition for the Dardenne brothers’ movies. In presenting a marginalized character with a complicated moral choice and then watching closely to see what he or she does, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne un-didactically school us in what makes the personal political. And by having their main characters start out feeling alone and then learn that not only are they part of a community but redemption can be found only by joining that community with an open heart, they illustrate the strength that can only be found in unity. As bleak as things sometimes get for the Dardennes’ troubled protagonists, they always make the connections they need to pull through their crises. And because we have seen them earn that grace, step by arduous step, the result is—well, uplifting.
Two Days, One Night starts with Sandra (Marion Cotillard) being woken from a deep sleep, both literally and figuratively, by a phone call. It’s Friday, and her fellow workers at a solar panel factory in Belgium, presented with the Hobson’s choice of losing their annual bonuses or letting her get laid off, have just voted for the layoff. Sandra, who is just putting her life back together after being sidelined by depression, feels so defeated and fragile she can barely stand, but Juliette (Catherine Salée), the friend who called, convinces her to fight for her job and gets their boss to allow for a second vote on Monday morning. The rest of the film follows Sandra through the weekend as she tracks down each of the coworkers who voted against her and asks for their support.
A tight focus on faces and realistically spare but pointed dialogue bring out the drama in these dialogues, as does the running tally Sandra is keeping of how many votes she still needs. Her encounters leave Sandra drained and ashamed, sure that those who are voting for her are doing so only out of pity, and embarrassed to be asking for her job. She feels as if she is taking money from her coworkers, she tells her quietly supportive husband, Manu (the Dardennes’ frequent collaborator Fabrizio Rongione), who reminds her that it’s not her fault the boss created that cruel choice.
At first, Sandra feels alone in the world, and she is seen almost exclusively by herself or apart from the other people in the frame. (The exception is an unshowily intimate scene with Manu and their two children, which ends at the dining table as the rest of the family helps Sandra hunt down her coworkers’ addresses amid detritus from a delicious-looking pizza dinner.) But gradually, she is seen more with other people. Manu coaxes her back into the fray whenever she starts to give up, often driving her to her coworkers’ houses and apartments. And then there are those discussions with her colleagues, which she dreads but finds mostly affirming, since her coworkers are generally warm and understanding even when their own need for money is so dire that they can’t afford to vote for her. In her brief visits, Sandra learns about the pressures, mostly caused by their near-poverty, that led each one to vote against her. Many tell her how hard it was to choose between her and the bonuses their families are counting on, one even crying and asking for her forgiveness.
Her coworkers are a diverse mix, almost evenly divided between men and women and of several ethnicities and nationalities, but that fact is important only in that it is completely irrelevant. Two or three people (all white Frenchmen, as it happens) show no empathy for Sandra, but the rest feel solidarity with for her, regardless of how they may have voted. Buoyed by their support, Sandra gains a little hope and self-confidence with almost every encounter, Cotillard’s hunched shoulders and tense expression gradually loosening.
The healing and liberation Sandra finds in claiming her rights and being validated by her coworkers feels a little stage-managed in one scene, where a sing-along to “Gloria” on the car radio is a little too loud and too long, all those cuts from one smiling face to another like a jarring shove from a movie that usually simply goes where it’s going and trusts us to follow. But there’s not a hint of false sentiment when Sandra gives each of the workers who voted for her a lingering hug on Monday morning. They all hug warmly back, but nobody says much. They don’t need to: Everyone understands what their life-giving fellowship means to her.