Impeccably nuanced tapestries of misery and hope, the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, cinema’s most responsible auteurs, abound in lives put aside and marginalized, their swirling moral chaos and sustained level of panic perched at a nexus of secular and spiritual anxiety. These are works of socialist-humanist daring that are often underpinned by allegory, as in the brothers’ magnificent last film, The Kid with a Bike, a fairy tale of sorts that ends with a young boy’s figurative resurrection, a wake-up call to a better life. Against environs of often callous economic exploitation and repression, the down and out, through much emotional turmoil inflicted on them by society, though sometimes by their own hand, at once awaken to the truth of the world’s verities and their own social and spiritual conscience. Realism becomes transcendence and vice versa, and Two Days, One Night fits immaculately into a canon ardently devoted to etching the complexities of the continuum of our being.
As is the Dardennes’ wont, the film drops us in medias res into the life and hard times of its protagonist, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a working-class wife and mother from the industrial town of Liège in Belgium. Through a haunted spectacle of resignation, of popping pills and napping through sunlight hours, through anguished conversations with her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and fraught phone calls with co-workers, a picture of desperation emerges. Sandra, having suffered a nervous breakdown and subsequently being absent from her work at a solar-panel plant, is deemed redundant by management and fired, and in exchange, her co-workers are each offered 1,000 euros for having picked up her slack. But as the ethics of her sacking have been called into question, Sandra’s allowed a second round of voting, which means that she must conquer her feelings of inadequacy and appeal to her fellow workers’ sense of goodwill on an Odyssean journey toward her own salvation.
The Dardennes believe in human value and social order being rooted in a sense of solidarity, a staggering consciousness of community that brims with a sensitivity to place, movement, and emotion. Theirs is an unmistakably socialist worldview whose shades of gray are empathetically rendered throughout Sandra’s soul-stirring expedition. One pit stop at a time, and sans malice, she challenges her co-workers’ egoism, pitting their self-interest against their sense of compassion. Defiantly or shamelessly, some reveal that their bonuses are necessary to their livelihood. During an exchange between two employees, one man’s violence pushes another toward Sandra’s cause. In another scene, her insistence is enough to make a woman leave her significant other. Some recoil from her deceitfully, no doubt aware of the danger that a face-to-face encounter poses to one’s selfish resolve, as evinced in the poignant sight of Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) breaking down at the sight of the woman whose kindness to him in the past he regrets having repaid so heartlessly.
All of the gods and monsters from the Dardennes’ earlier films appear resurrected in each of Sandra’s 16 co-workers. Because of this, Two Days, One Night can feel overly schematic, and in terms of plot, its gears churn as visibly as they did in Lorna’s Silence. The story, which glides too briskly over the effects of Sandra’s depression on her marriage, is also not without its overwrought asides, such as Sandra awakening from a nightmare in which one of her children is drowning. But Cotillard refuses easy characterization, conveying a haunted vision of courage in the face of almost certain oblivion when, in the film’s richest scene, Sandra at once tearfully and gleefully turns the volume up on a depressing pop song that Muno, worried about further aggravating her already fragile state of mind, would rather she turned off. And while the film’s path toward its final epiphany may be among the Dardennes’ most preordained, the grace with which the filmmakers and their resplendent actress get us there nonetheless kills us softly.