Deux jours, une nuit
starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry
written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
by Walter Chaw Somewhere in the middle of the Dardennes' Two Days, One Night, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), trying to convince her sixteen co-workers to vote to allow her to keep her job at the expense of a bonus of one-thousand euros, accuses her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) of turning off the radio because the song is too sad and he fears she's too fragile for it. She turns it back on. It's Petula Clark's French-language cover of Jackie DeShannon's "Needles and Pins," "La Nuit N'en Finit Plus." Shot in the Dardennes style, close and over the shoulder, Sandra looks at Manu slyly for a second, pumps up the volume, and laughs. Cotillard is disarming, as always, and she's so natural in this moment--in all of the film, but in this moment in particular. It's stunning. Her Sandra is absolutely compelling throughout. Her victories are ecstatic; her defeats are deflating. About an hour in, I realized that Two Days, One Night is a fable--a literal one, with a heroine undergoing a series of trials, forced to say the same things like a Belgian Bartleby to a sequence of different people in different situations. Even her exit line at the end of every encounter ("Thank you, goodbye") is identical each time. It's through this repetition that the film finds a rhythm, sure, but also room for Sandra to learn and for Two Days, One Night to paint as complete and sympathetic a picture of depression as there's ever been.
The film is ostensibly about how Sandra--who went on leave for a while, we learn, because of her depression (and is addicted to Xanax as a consequence)--is forced to be at the mercy of her coworkers. In desperation, she seeks out each one to make the same appeal for them to essentially affirm her stability. The responses she gets, ranging from hostility to compassion to a real, affecting gratitude for a chance to do the right thing, affect her in turn. The difficulty for the depressed to do simple things (get out of bed, answer the phone) is portrayed matter-of-factly; the Dardennes see real courage in Sandra climbing stairs, knocking on doors, not killing herself ("Forgive me," she says, and you do). Her affliction lends tension to a phone call she takes from her small children, to a conflict she inadvertently starts between two men--then a woman and her husband, which leads to another car ride and another song, Them's "Gloria," that Sandra sings along with at the top of her lungs.
Shot for the most part in extreme close-up and long tracking shots, indicated again in the Dardennes' auteur style by extended walking scenes and a certain purity of expression, Two Days, One Night pivots on a moral. The moral--and all great fables have them--is that it isn't up to others to define your worth; allowing them to do so by its nature neutralizes one's agency in one's own life. At the end of the titular period, Sandra is allowed her only expression of contentment ("I'm happy"), marking the Dardennes again as chroniclers of redemption and rejuvenation. It's earned, too, as hard-won as the victories for any of Aesop's protagonists--a happy ending in the sense that no matter what happens from there, Sandra has been brave. Crucially, it's not bravery by anyone else's standards but her own. Two Days, One Night is a masterpiece of struggle, a film that could be unpacked any number of ways (class, gender, economics), turned in any direction to capture any particular species of illumination, and still shine with complexity and grace. One of the year's best, it's beautiful in its modesty, reminding me in an odd way of films of perseverance like Nights of Cabiria and Vivre sa vie.