I hope that headline drew you in — because it was sort of a trick. To say that a lead actor “struggles” through a film sort of implies that the movie itself is a struggle to sit through, but nope! The French/Belgian import Two Days, One Night does put the brilliant Ms. Cotillard through more than one emotional wringer, but the film itself is pretty excellent as well. Sorry if that headline tricked you. Now keep reading.
Two Days, One Night is the latest film from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, the celebrated and prolific Belgian brothers who, as co-directors, gave us The Kid with a Bike (2011), The Child (2005), and about a dozen more. (They’re even busier as producers.) Thanks partially to a simple yet fascinating story — and mainly to a powerhouse lead performance by Ms. Cotillard — Two Days, One Night asserts itself as one of the fraternal filmmakers’ most accessible films. (In other words, don’t be scared off by the subtitles, because this film has a message or two that transcend all language barriers.)
The plot is so simple you can almost hear the American remake being pitched as you read it: a woman has one weekend to convince her co-workers to give up their year-end cash bonus so that she can stay on the payroll. Seems that Sandra’s employer is dealing with a budget crisis, and the end result is this: if she stays, a dozen people lose a nice chunk of cash — which means we get to join Sandra as she spends her weekend traveling all over town, tracking down her co-workers, and pleading her case. If she gets enough people to give up their bonus, Sandra can keep her job.
Sounds pretty miserable, right?
At points, sure. But the beauty of the film is in its simple, honest analysis of the human condition: Sandra is ashamed to beg for her job, but she also has a family to support. A few of her co-workers are instantly supportive; some are most assuredly not, and a few others are too uncomfortable to even discuss the situation. It all makes for a low-key but entirely fascinating quandary.
The filmmakers strike a masterful balance between Sandra’s small victories and her potentially crushing disappointments. Of course there’s a very compelling suspense angle to the tale (“Will Sandra save her job?”), but Two Days, One Night absolutely shines as a straightforward dramatic piece. The co-creators are clearly astute observers of human nature, and their screenplay is a wonderful collection of arguments, compromises, and quiet revelations. Even the most cursory characters feel like flesh and blood.
And then of course there is the leading lady. Nobody needs to be reminded of how fantastic Marion Cotillard always is, without fail, no matter if it’s a tiny little indie, an artsy French import, or a big fat blockbuster. To call her performance in Two Days, One Night her best work “ever” might be simplistic, but it may also be accurate. If there’s a human emotion that she doesn’t cover in this film — and by cover I mean nail — I’d love to know what it is. Sandra’s predicament is worthy of our sympathy right off the bat, but she never becomes a one-note victim or a simplistic crybaby. It’s a brilliantly written character, and the performance is even better.
I sort of feel bad for whoever tries to “Americanize” this movie, but it’s bound to happen, because Two Days, One Night provides a fascinating dilemma that most working people can relate to, and it does so in a refreshingly honest fashion. Your best bet is to seek this one out for yourself before that remake happens.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos