Woman fights for her job in thoughtful, life-sized ‘Two Days One Night’
It’s a good thing Marion Cotillard has such an interesting face. We are invited to gaze at her, often in extreme close-up, for just about every frame of the Belgian drama Two Days One Night. Cotillard stars as a young blue-collar wife and mother who has just one weekend to convince a majority of her co-workers to vote to let her keep her job in a small-town factory. As most of the film consists of brief, terse interviews between harried people, viewers might get a bit restless wondering where it’s all going. But the movie does go somewhere interesting at last—even if it takes awhile to get there.
Two Days One Night was written and directed by Belgium’s filmmaking Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, whose focus has often been on working-class and immigrant communities trying to make better lives for themselves on the outskirts of big cities. (The Kid With the Bike and The Silence of Lorna are two of their more recent films.) In the new film, the Dardennes examine the relationship people have to their jobs, and to their co-workers, while exploring the subtle, cruel ways management can manipulate those relationships for profit.
The official Belgian entry in this year’s Academy Awards, the film revolves around Sandra (Cotillard), one of 17 employees in a small solar panel factory in a semi-industrial Belgian town. Her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), works in a neighborhood cafe, and they’ve recently moved with their two little girls into a house on which they are paying a mortgage. But one Friday afternoon, a friend from work calls to tell Sandra her job is in jeopardy.
The foreman at work has convinced their boss they could cut costs by firing one employee, creating a bigger workload for the rest, and the boss has offered to redistribute a portion of the fired worker’s salary as an incentive bonus to the others. A vote has been held without Sandra’s knowledge, asking her co-workers if they would rather let Sandra keep her job or accept a 1,000 euro bonus. Sandra rushes to the factory just as the boss is pulling away for the weekend, and he agrees to hold another vote on Monday: if she can convince a majority to choose her over the bonus, she can stay.
Sandra also has her own private demons. She’s had to take sick leave to battle depression, and downs Xanax like they’re M&Ms. Her self-esteem is already so damaged, the very thought of having to go out and plead for her job makes her want to curl up in bed forever. (It makes her feel like “a beggar and a thief.”) Manu has his hands full convincing her she’s a worthwhile person and strong enough to stand up for herself, her job, and her family’s future. But finally, against her every instinct, Sandra sets out to track down her co-workers and plead her case.
The Dardennes explore the issue of how much of one’s identity and self-respect depends on one’s job in modern culture—and how that identity can be ruptured by employers who see their labor force as statistics, not people. Asking employees to choose between Sandra’s livelihood and a big bonus does’’t seem callous to her boss, it’s just business. (And an easy way to dodge responsibility.) And of course, the employees are caught in the middle. “I didn’t vote against you,” one of Sandra’s co-workers explains to her, “I voted for my bonus.”
But once Sandra begins her odyssey around the taverns, soccer fields, and laundromats where her fellow workers spend their weekend, results are often surprising. One co-worker breaks down in tears for voting against her the first time; another won’t even speak to her. A middle-aged man and his volatile grown son come to blows over the issue; another woman risks her marriage.
It can be slow going at times, watching Cotillard’s fragile, yet increasingly dogged Sandra try to reclaim her self-worth. Yet, the question that hovers over all—what would any of us do, when faced with a similar choice—is paid off in a very nifty way in this thoughtful, life-sized tale.
TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT (DEUX JOURS UNE NUIT)
*** (out of four)
With Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. A Sundance Selects release. Rated PG-13. 95 minutes. (In French with English subtitles.) PHOTO: Marion Cotillard stars in Belgian drama ‘Two Days One Night,’ directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.