In “Two Days, One Night,” the writing/directing duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne turn the ordinary into the extraordinary and they make it look effortless. Sandra, (Marion Cotillard) a factory worker at a solar panel company, has just gotten over a bout of depression and is ready to return to work. Unfortunately, she finds out that her coworkers have decided to take a bonus, something that would cause her termination. So, the weekend before she’s supposed to return she tries to convince her colleagues to change their minds.
If this sounds like a simple premise, it is. Though the Dardenne brothers tell it with such clarity and authenticity that it doesn’t need to be any more complex. The picture moves along at a steady pace, never meandering off track but never in any big hurry to get through everything. The movie is free of unnecessary fat; each scene has a clear purpose and a clear end goal. And at ninety-five minutes, the movie is briskly able to bring the story to a satisfying close without dragging on. Overall, “Two Days, One Night” one of the best structured and paced movies of 2014.
With a story like this it would be easy to make a one sided and heavy-handed “working-class-citizen-vs-a-heartless-corporation” movie but the Dardennes wisely stay objective. This is most clearly illustrated in the depiction of the co-workers. They aren’t greedy, one-dimensional CEOs but average, working class people like Sandra who would benefit from the bonus. Some of them opt to take the bonus, but you can’t necessarily blame them for it. There are no villains, or even any “heroes” in the picture. Just average people, all trying to make a living, all with their own issues.
The Dardennes pull all of this off without relying on any melodrama or cheap sentimentality. No scene is made more dramatic than it needs to be; no intrusive music swells up at crucial moment. In fact there isn’t a score at all. In other words, the Dardennes don’t use any manipulative techniques to get you invested in the narrative. Instead the brothers employ down to earth, almost Cinema verite style filmmaking that doesn’t talk down to the audience. Important plot revelations and character development is done in a casual and organic manner.
As Sandra, Cotillard convincingly portrays a fragile yet resilient person. A woman who’s already been through hell and now finds herself fighting to preserve her livelihood. She needs this job for her livelihood but at the same time she doesn’t feel comfortable trying to convince people to choose against their own livelihood. She’s full of pride, something that’s admirable but sometimes frustrating. You’re on her side but when she pities herself and starts to sink back into depression you want to yell at her to get back up and keep fighting. It’s a fantastic performance that, like the rest of the movie, is sincere without going overboard. Often times Cotillard is able to convey feelings of panic, worry, anger and sadness through facial expressions, without saying a word.
In the end, “Two Days, One Night” is an easy movie to enjoy. It’s optimistic without becoming sappy. It deals with heavy themes but isn’t very dour. And all of this is done in a simple, unassuming way that feels true to life.