This well-regarded 2014 film by the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, is a fine showcase for the talented actress Marion Cotillard, who is followed obediently by hand-held cameras throughout and delivers an excellent performance that was rightly nominated for an Oscar. She plays Sandra Bya, a worker in a solar panel factory living in a small industrial town in Belgium. At the beginning of the film Sandra is made redundant when she returns to work, following a recovery from an earlier nervous breakdown; it transpires that her colleagues, who have been covering her shifts in her absence, have voted to accept individual bonuses of €1,000 if Sandra loses her job, on the proviso they continue doing the extra work. Sandra’s colleague Juliette (Catherine Salée) convinces company boss Dumont (Batiste Sornin) to hold a fresh ballot after a weekend because of interference in the first vote by middle manager Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), and then persuades the fragile Sandra to fight for her position. Sandra has just 48 hours before the secondary vote to track down 16 of her fellow employees in order to convince enough of them to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job.
The story mainly takes place during this weekend period, as Sandra is driven from one home to another by supportive husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), in order to discuss her predicament with each co-worker. The couple, who have two children, will be left in financial peril if Sandra loses her job, but many of her colleagues also desperately need the €1,000 they have been offered, for various reasons; one needs the cash to pay for his child’s tuition fees, for example, while another points out that it will pay for his utility bills for a year. Some are sympathetic to her cause, and agree to back her in the Monday morning vote, while others refuse to be swayed or are influenced by the interfering Jean-Marc.
The film’s political undertones are handled very well; on the one hand we can see that the characters have a simple decision between helping a colleague or taking a bonus, but the situation they are in represents so much more. Deux Jours, Un Nuit can be viewed as a call-to-arms for left-wing collectivism (or indeed a lesson in the importance of trade unionism) and could even be a subtle critique of the ‘me first’ attitude that has generally prevailed in western society in recent decades. That said, the individual circumstances of the characters allow for a broad range of realistic reasons behind each person’s decision, and most elicit our sympathy regardless of the way in which they vote. Repeatedly Sandra tells them she didn’t ask for this situation, and many simply reply that they didn’t ask for it either. Lesser writers would simply suggest that greed is the primary motivation for those who do not support the main protagonist.
The desperation felt at the bottom of the job food chain will be familiar to many that have struggled in the wake of the recent global financial crisis, while Dumont’s initial decision to make Sandra redundant is given topical context, as it is made so that the company can compete with rival Asian firms. On a local level, naturally everyone is tempted by the money, but there’s a clear (and even) division between those who subscribe to a more communal, left-leaning ideology and those who are more concerned with preserving or bettering their individual status. The Dardennes are not necessarily judgmental about the characters who say ‘no’ to Sandra, and financial circumstances and the job market go a long way to explaining why some feel they cannot help, but each promise of support Sandra receives is like a little uplifting hit (both for the viewer and the character, who is struggling with depression). It’s also interesting, considering the north European setting and current political debates surrounding questions of immigration, that Sandra is generally supported by her ethnic minority colleagues in this film (albeit characters who are seemingly second or third generation offspring of immigrants).
It’s a testament to Cotillard’s skill that the character’s ups-and-downs and sudden, understandable crises of confidence are entirely believable; each visit seems to tire the character further and she nearly gives up on a few occasions, and I think the actress does a great job of portraying this woman’s fragile mental and physical state. Throughout the weekend she is still expected to perform household duties, the directors at one point showing Sandra as she makes the beds, as if to subtly point out that life must go on regardless of the outcome of the secondary vote. It’s an excellent performance, and ranks among Cotillard’s best to date.
There’s an intimacy about Deux Jours, Un Nuit that largely comes from the handheld camerawork, always close to the actress and constantly moving around her until the very last scene, in which she walks away from a static camera. While the directors are not suggesting that all is suddenly well with this final shot, there is a sense of a page being turned for a new chapter, or even of an increase in inner strength.
It’s a realistic film, in the sense that the conversations taking place feel natural, unforced, and nicely varied given that they are essentially about the same thing; there are colleagues that Sandra obviously knows well, and is friendly with, and colleagues she barely knows at all or dislikes. As such while watching there’s a degree of anticipation each time she goes to see somebody new. What will they be like? Will they be compassionate? Aggressive? Dismissive? Will they back her? What’s their reasoning for voting one way or another? Each vignette reveals a little about a colleague (fine acting all round, by the way) and a little more about the lead characters. This smartly-scripted film holds a mirror up to society and is effectively asking whether a previously-strong sense of community spirit is being eroded, suggesting through its final voting score that we may be at a tipping point of sorts.
Directed by: Jean-Luc Dardenne, Pierre Dardenne.
Written by: Pierre Dardenne, Jean-Luc Dardenne.
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée.
Cinematography: Alain Marcoen.
Editing: Marie-Hélène Dozo.
Running Time: 95 minutes.