It takes a lot of kindness to make a sacrifice for someone. It takes a lot of courage to ask for that sacrifice. There’s nothing like desperation to foster that courage. Brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne make small movies about big ideas, sensitively rendering universal moral complexities through stories of specific places. More than anyone, they are carrying on Kieslowski’s work, less interested in answers, bored by certitude, allergic to formulas. In Two Days, One Night (2014) they pit the individual against the community; they explore the Darwinian reality of capitalism and wonder if there is room for dignity within it.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is recovering from a nervous breakdown. In the time she spent off from her work as a laborer for a solar panel manufacturer, the company discovered they can operate just as efficiently without her. On a Friday, management puts a vote to the remaining employees; keep Sandra or receive a €1,000 bonus. She loses the vote. She begs the company to hold another vote on Monday and they agree. She then has the weekend, with the help and encouragement of her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), to visit each of her 16 coworkers in an attempt to find nine sympathetic people to turn down money and save her job.
Some people pledge their support; others insist that they need the money. We believe some; we see that others could do without it. With each victory and defeat, we watch Sandra’s fragile psyche twist and turn with grief, worry, shame and regret. How can she ask these people to take her back? And if they do, how can she work alongside them? How can she work alongside the people who didn’t vote for her? Each coworker has a unique story and adds a moral wrinkle. Some are desperate, some are insulted and angry, others are conflicted. For the sympathetic, the decision is never easy; the sacrifice always hurts. The underlying cruelty is that the company constructed the decision in such a way, forcing the employees to take these types of sides.
Driving the movie is Cotillard’s pared-down performance. In long takes and close-ups she suggests sadness and anger and a fair amount of self-doubt while never letting us know exactly what she’s thinking. The Dardennes reveal little here; we’re never sure what we’re supposed to feel because the filmmakers remove all of the usual cues (there’s no music, the workings of the camera remain invisible) and Cotillard’s performance reinforces that ambiguity. What she wants is always out of reach; we feel that she goes through these humiliating trials because she’s expected to—the job she’s defending doesn’t seem worth it, but always she has her family to think about. But her coworkers have their own families and around it goes. What’s clear is that Sandra, beyond jobs and coworkers and money, is gazing into an abyss of depression. Despite the admirable support from her husband, she is isolated. The victories she wins do little to ease her anxiety, to stop her from jumping at every ring of the phone, from heaving bouts of agitation, from suicidal thoughts. There is a good reason that the Dardennes make Sandra’s initial injury a mental one when they could easily, as she is a machinist, have had it be a physical accident. We fear that, regardless of Monday’s vote, the abyss gazes also.
And yet, Two Days, One Night is a hopeful film, one that shows humanity with its warts but shows that it has much more smooth skin. One of the all-time great moments in movies is the final scene of It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) when George Bailey, in his darkest hour, finds out that his wife, Mary, has asked their friends to contribute what they can and they have responded with more money than they could possibly imagine. There’s a purity to that moment that is beyond reality and exists on a plane that only exists in the movies. Two Days, One Night is not about George Bailey; it’s about Mary and the conversations she must have had asking for the money. It’s about the Bedford Falls about six months later, when some families have to cut back while George and the family take a trip abroad.