Two Days, One Night

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Movie a Day Blog has always been fascinated by the concept of two brothers working together as film directors on one film.

There are a surprising number of successful examples, from Joel and Ethan Coen to Jay and Mark Duplass, not to mention the Taviani brothers from Italy, the Quay Brothers from England and numerous other pairs I’m sure I’ve omitted.

One of the most interesting is the Dardenne brothers from Belgium. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have been directing films together since the late 1970s, and some of their work, including ROSETTA (1995), L’ENFANT (2005) and THE KID WITH THE BIKE (2011) is simply extraordinary.

The Dardennes focus on a world few other contemporary filmmakers tackle: the parallel existence to our modern, wired, global economy of poor, disenfranchised and discarded people; these days, that means much of the world’s working class. There are no rich or exotic figures in their industrial landscapes; no exciting car chases, zero explosions and no gadgets. Just a will to survive, usually at any cost.

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT is one of the best explication of these themes for the Dardenne brothers, and their first film to feature a movie star. This would seem the opposite of the Dardenne aesthetic, which often relies on non-professional actors and naturalistic settings; they work hard to establish a realistic dynamic that a big name actress would seem to pull the audience away from.

Marion Cotillard overcomes this challenge and delivers a layered and moving performance as a factory worker who is coming off a lengthy sick leave for depression, only to find that the business has run just as well without her, and now she’s superfluous. The owner proposes a solution: Cotillard can keep her job, but none of the other workers will receive a year-end bonus. He puts it to a vote, and after some heavy-handed arm twisting by the plant manager, Cotillard loses the ballot. Not surprisingly, the workers can all really use that bonus money.

But a dedicated co-worker gets her to appeal personally to the owner, and a second ballot is scheduled. Cotillard has the weekend, the time period of the film’s title, to sway a majority of opinions in her favor. Pushed by her husband into making personal appeals to her co-workers, Cotillard spends the 72 hours debasing herself and basically begging people to let her keep her job. She needs the money, too, to help support her family of four; without her income, they will lose their house.

TWO DAYS is unflinching in its stark portrayal of this ethical dilemma: all these people need the money the owner is dangling in front of them just as much as Cotillard needs the job he is dangling in front of her. It is typical throughout the history of capitalism to have owners pit workers against each other, rather than seeing them unite against management.

Cotillard provides a deeply personal and vivid manifestation of this cold-hearted strategy. In the process, the Dardennes also illuminate contemporary Europe and its suddenly-diverse population. While set in Belgium, the story could take place anywhere in the European Union: Cotillard has to visit co-workers who are Arabic, African, men, women, fathers, sons — a true cross-section of the global working class.

She is avoided, reviled, spat upon and at one time physically attacked, which shows just how successful the owner’s strategy is. All that rage is being directed at Cotillard, and not management. I won’t do a spoiler and reveal how the vote turns out, just that when some measure of satisfaction is finally offered, it comes with a catch that underlines the ethical quandary TWO DAYS presents so graphically.

Cotillard emerges from the film as a character with her dignity intact, making this one of the more upbeat Dardenne contemporary urban tales. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT is an immensely satisfying film to watch because its humanity is infectious. We don’t even know what they manufacture in Cotillard’s factory, and the company’s name is meaningless, a corporate branding effort.

It doesn’t matter. The film is not about the owners, but about us, the people, and how we choose to live our lives and by whose standards. Precious few films approach us on this level, and even fewer succeed as well as TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT.

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