Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films often contain happy endings, but they are not earned easily. The Belgian writer-directors behind such films as The Kid With a Bike and The Son craft small-scale realism with an almost documentary-like intimacy, presenting characters who are often in desperate situations. Even if they exit a Dardenne brothers film in a better place than when they started, they’re certainly not left unscathed.
The Dardennes’ latest, Two Days, One Night, doesn’t represent a major shift in their technique, although it does feature their biggest star. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a wife and mother who has just been given terrible news: Her position at a factory that makes solar panels is about to be eliminated, while her 16 coworkers will each receive a 1,000-euro bonus.
However, she can save her job if she’s able to convince a majority of her coworkers to forgo their bonuses so that she can remain part of the team. The vote will be Monday morning, and it’s Friday afternoon now. Two Days, One Night follows Sandra as she visits each of her coworkers at home to plead her case: If she loses her job, she and her family won’t be able to afford their place anymore.
This is a typically barebones plot from the Dardennes, and the filmmakers manage to extract significant amounts of suspense, humanity and even a few dark laughs from Sandra’s exchanges. Adding to the tension, Sandra was already unraveling before she found out she was to be sacked: Recovering from a bout of depression that put her on extended sick leave, she’s emotionally fragile, gulping down anxiety pills to keep her from having panic attacks and crying fits. This is not a woman who needs the added stress of convincing coworkers that they should give up extra money on her behalf.
Although the role has the potential of inspiring hysterical scene-chewing, Cotillard plays Sandra with restraint, emphasizing the character’s desire not to fall apart, even though waves of sadness seem to be consuming her. Sandra’s face is a mixture of grief and exhaustion, and there’s an air of pessimism that hangs over the proceedings, as if she knows that her case is hopeless but must try anyway for the good of her family.
What’s remarkable, then, about Two Days, One Night is the range of responses her plea gets. Some are sympathetic to her situation but are too much in need of the bonus. (One man has to pay overdue bills. A woman wants to redo her patio. Another man is already working two jobs to make ends meet.) Others are offended that she would even bother them: After all, they say, why can’t she stop being selfish and think of her coworkers’ needs? But two exchanges in particular resonate. One man, ashamed that he had initially voted for the bonus (and her firing), breaks down when he sees her, begging her for forgiveness and promising to vote differently on Monday. Another encounter—involving a father and son—escalates into a heated argument about Sandra’s predicament, eventually building to a shocking moment of violence. Sandra’s request creates a troubling test case for the audience: Would any of us turn down more money if it meant that a coworker wouldn’t be fired? How selfless are any of us, really?
Working with longtime cinematographer Alain Marcoen, the Dardennes shoot many of these encounters in single takes, letting the drama occur in real time as Sandra makes her appeal and then her coworker decides how to respond. Once the film’s pattern is established, there’s a fascination inherent in trying to anticipate what different people—white, black, men, women, younger, older—will say to her. But the cumulative effect of all these meetings is that we see a landscape in which most everyone is struggling to get by. Sandra may be the most desperate case at the moment, but several of her coworkers aren’t far behind. It’s a world of diminished expectations, and Two Days, One Night has a lot of sympathy for everyone. Maybe that’s why Sandra rarely gets too angry when someone won’t vote for her: She knows she’s asking a lot.
The other standout performance is from Fabrizio Rongione—who’s been in several of the Dardennes’s films—as Sandra’s patient husband, Manu. Married to a woman barely holding it together, Manu has long become used to the idea that he has to pick her up and keep her strong, and he does so as warmly as possible. (He seems to have learned that tough love doesn’t work as well on Sandra as gentle persuasion.)
Naturally, the whole film is leading to the important vote on Monday morning, and the finite amount of possible outcomes makes it harder to really surprise the audience. The Dardennes don’t completely sidestep this limitation, but they do manage to find an ending that honors Sandra’s complicated spirit and the economic hardships she sees all around her. Whether or not you consider it a happy ending may depend on how much optimism you have for these lived-in, effortlessly real characters.
Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Writers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.