As Sandra, a factory employee pleading to her co-workers for her job over the course of a weekend, Marion Cotillard gives a performance composed of seemingly casual miracles, achieving a rare and palpable degree of emotional translucency. In Two Days, One Night, one doesn’t see the work that goes into Cotillard’s acting, which is all the more remarkable considering that Sandra suffers from debilitating depression—a condition that tends to bring out the fashionably oblique, under-emoting worst in actors. The tactility of Sandra’s tremulousness becomes an organic suspense mechanism for the film; you fear for this woman, whose self-loathing is ferocious. Sandra is always somewhat slumped over, tentative and knotted, her skin appearing to glow with what might be called melancholically angelic doubt. That glow represents something else though: a subsumed rage within her that signifies strength. She has a desire to be heard and felt, even if she doesn’t know it or feels she deserves it.
A brief scene encapsulates Sandra’s misery in a few physical flourishes. After talking with a co-worker, explaining to him that the solar-panel company they work for has unfairly pitted the team’s prospective bonuses against Sandra’s re-employment (following her mysterious absence), Sandra collapses into the passenger seat of her husband Manu’s (Fabrizio Rongione) car and unscrews a water bottle, sipping it. She tells him to start the car and rolls her window down, arcing her head out of the window frame into the air that’s blowing against her face. Cotillard allows us to see her thin, lithe body as it strains to release pressure—twisting muscles, breathing in and out, gasping, curling into itself—to gain an element of refuge from panic. This moment of qualified comfort Sandra finds in the car is a succinct embodiment of the judgmental siege that depressives often feel themselves permanently under, especially in the public domain. And directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne never push this resonance, understanding the power of the scene to partially reside in their daring willingness to toss it off, hoping you find it.
Incredibly, nearly every scene in Two Days, One Night is this moving. The film’s emotionally overwhelming without exhausting itself; it’s a perfectly calibrated work of dramatic escalation, another of the Dardennes’ ineffably precise mixtures of social parable, melodrama, process thriller, and expressionist character portraiture. Most of the scenes are structurally the same: Sandra asks someone to vote in favor of her continued employment at the expense of a sizable bonus, yet each version is informed with telling, minute behavioral variations, especially in Sandra’s approaches, which grow in self-commitment, and even in confrontational thorniness.
The film’s narrative hook, in which people are forced to fire their own so as to stay at each other’s throats to the bosses’ ultimate gain, is obviously symbolic of real corporate exploitation, particularly union dissolution. The directors connect this association to Sandra’s deepest fears of being marginalized while simultaneously occupying the center of her microcosm’s (negative, pitying) attention—a fear that embodies the contradictory perceptions of deep depression in a nutshell. It would be easy for a social-problem plot of this sort to lapse into cartoonish tedium, but the Dardennes rarely emphasize typical or resolvable beats, concentrating instead on the textures of each encounter (most notably aural), which fill this world with verisimilitude that complements the behavioral density of Cotillard’s brilliant performance. The co-workers aren’t broadly drawn or demonized either; in each conflict, their desperation is quickly understood to rival Sandra’s (they’re often found to be working side jobs for extra cash), and we’re allowed to see that they could just as easily be the protagonists of this narrative. The plot barely matters though. As always, discovery is the Dardennes’ paramount concern; they seek to discover characters in the act of discovering themselves, which often entails the unearthing of surprising, affirming reservoirs of decency.
The discoveries are sifted through a formal pattern. In the spirit of the neorealists, the Dardennes often nip scenes and images at unexpected places, leaving most of them hanging until a final catharsis in which suppressed, accumulated emotion is allowed to come flowing forth. This tension is escalated by the fleet, tripwire staging, which pivots on a conscious, geometric point/counterpoint between the movements of the actors and the cameras pirouetting around them in long, pregnant takes. Sandra’s always in motion, in behavioral extremis, with the recurring exception of the contrastingly still and varied images of her asleep in Manu’s car or tucked away in her bedroom. Cuts between scenes often deny both Sandra and the audience relief, tethering the latter empathetically to the former’s feelings of persecution, heightening our awareness of those moments that serve as merciful oases from embarrassment.
The climax offers a telling example of the Dardennes’ artistry of sideways emphasis. A few moments before the scene in which everyone is to re-vote on Sandra’s looming dismissal, Sandra speaks with Alphonse (Serge Koto), a black, recently hired contract worker who’s afraid to contradict the boss who’s been conspiring against her. Alphonse, one of the more poignant of Sandra’s co-workers, has every reason to vote against her, and yet he’s shown in one of the final images to be standing among the people who voted for her restoration. The Dardennes don’t highlight this pay-off, instead accepting Alphonse’s compassion as a given within the composition. That sort of faith (in the characters as well as in the audience’s perception of these details) might be these extraordinary filmmakers’ supreme gift, the reason their films are so devastating yet empowering: They mine heroism for its quotidian challenges, failures, and rewards. Two Days, One Night is an evocative dramatization of a workaday battle that’s really an internal battle. In the end, it’s about Sandra coming to realize that she’s worth fighting for.
Two Days, One Night reminds us that digital cinema needn’t be all bad, as it’s one of the most radiantly, subtly colorful of all the Dardennes’ films. This superb transfer really sells the color as well, which was considerably less discernable to this critic when he saw the film last year. Most obviously, there’s the gorgeous, vibrant pink of Sandra’s tank-top, which becomes her unofficial uniform as a well as a symbol of her perseverance. Skylines are a lively tapestry of blues and grays that are often accented with bright colors that approximate the sea changes of Sandra’s internal realm. Skin textures are detailed and richly toned. The soundtrack is a marvel of understated aural rhythms. There’s no conventional score, but there are a great variety of diegetic sounds that serve as dramatic mood enhancers, such as the saw that can be heard as Sandra approaches a co-worker’s home. All effects, great and minute, resound with pinpoint clarity and dimension on this track. There’s little way this film could look or sound better with the means of technology presently available.
The "get" in this supplements package, one of Criterion’s best assemblies of the year, is the series of interviews in which Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne discuss their work on the sites of the various locations where the film was shot. Both filmmakers are specific and erudite on the subject of their methods. Virtually every sentiment is a revelation, whether pertaining to Marion Cotillard’s instinctual awareness of the directors’ fastidious use of close-ups (in one shot, they find it dramatically pivotal that we see both of her eyes while she remains in a semi-side profile), or to the Dardennes’ way of burying symbols in images (every encounter was intended to have a physical obstacle between Sandra and her various co-workers). This supplement honors one of the great facets of the Dardennes’ art: their allegiance to rendering the physical tactility of both the actors and the spaces they inhabit. This concern with location is also emphasized in When Léon M.’s Boat Went Down the Meuse for the First Time, the Dardennes’ 1979 documentary of a strike that gripped Belgium in 1960. As the brothers say in another of the superb interviews included here (all filmed specifically for Criterion), it was important to them to place the subjects within the actual locations that defined the story being recounted. (One can also retroactively identify the Dardennes’ sensibility in the nervy editing rhythms.) Rounding out the package is a short film by critic Kent Jones, an essay by Girish Shambu, interviews with Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione, and the theatrical trailer.
A gorgeous presentation of the Dardennes’ most recent masterpiece that also provides unmissable, revelatory insights into its creation, straight from the artists’ mouths.