The biggest surprise about Two Days, One Night isn’t that Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made their most openly political film in years, but that they’ve made one of their least morally nuanced. Certainly the film’s premise couldn’t be any timelier for our post-subprime world: Factory worker Sandra (Marion Cotillard), having recently recovered from a bout of depression whose etiology remains frustratingly vague, learns that her co-workers have voted to receive a 1,000 euro bonus at the cost of her employment. When Sandra discovers that the vote was contaminated by the deliberate malice of foreman Jean-Marc (Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet), Sandra sets out to persuade her fellow employees one by one to forego their own self-interest in the name of worker solidarity, a gambit whose necessity is further complicated by the fact that Jean-Marc has been feeding them misinformation about their own job security.
The Dardennes have hit upon a brilliant microcosmic metaphor for the ways that capitalism finds to pit worker against worker, while management remains aloof, supplied with plausible deniability in the person of an overzealous middleman (here, Jean-Marc). What follows is an economic odyssey across Seraing (the same locale seen in the Dardennes’ The Son) as the filmmakers anatomize the reactions to Sandra’s proposal. But it’s precisely in these scenes that Two Days, One Night begins to go off the rails. Instead of using the opportunity to sketch out a variety of reactions to an admittedly meaty dilemma, the filmmakers eschew any complexity of motive. Sandra’s co-workers either readily agree to give up their bonuses, or else flatly refuse out of superficial, strictly personal reasons. Ethical inquiry here gives way to a kind of baldly sociological mode that seems new, and somewhat uncomfortable, to the Dardennes. Admittedly, spouses will argue, and strife will be sown between father and son, but in the final analysis the film has nowhere to go with these scenarios, tying up its loose ends with what amounts to a group hug.
Much like the workers’ climactic vote, Two Days, One Night ends in a split decision where the attempt at a nuanced build-up trumps a finale that’s far too on the nose with its predetermined upbeat ending. The Dardennes seal the deal by delivering a tidy tagline in Sandra’s final line of dialogue. The only thing missing is something rousing (“The Internationale,” say) playing over the scene. Solidarity is one thing, but triumphalism is quite another. Peel back the Dardennes’ trademark neo-neorealist aesthetic, the ceaselessly stalking camerawork that nowadays characterizes virtually every other art-house film being made, and you’ll discover that, at bottom, Two Days, One Night is a an old-fashioned social-problem film where the problem magically evaporates.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.