Despite being the first actual star the Dardenne brothers have hired in, like, forever, Marion Cotillard rarely feels incongruous in Two Days, One Night‘s naturalistically-shot small town setting, even surrounded by a cast of non-actors. Yet there’s no taking your eyes off her, and that’s not down to star power; as the depressed, recently laid-off Sandra, Cotillard lives and breathes nervous energy into every inch of every frame, constantly on the verge of tears or sudden elation. She’s the life and soul of a troubling movie, a performance capable of inspiring mirrored emotions in the viewer with every little expression or gesture.
Recovering from an apparently severe breakdown, Cotillard’s Sandra is readying herself for a return to work, only to find that her colleagues have voted in a ballot which forced them to choose between keeping Sandra on or losing their €1,000 bonus. That all but two voted against her almost plunges Sandra back into darkness, but the discovery that the decisions were made under the influence of her manipulative foreman Jean-Marc prompts her to request a re-vote, in a secret ballot after the weekend. Encouraged by her patient, understanding husband, she contacts each of her sixteen colleagues in order to try and convince them to change their minds.
Sandra’s woes about losing her job are stemmed from the fact that, without it, her family will struggle financially. But the strife that arises from the situation is that at first she doesn’t realise – or more likely, doesn’t consider – that without their bonuses, the others will also struggle financially, some in dire ways. Every character she approaches is highly memorable due to their demographic diversity, but while their motives for voting are disparate, they all come back to the fact that what Sandra is asking of them is to surrender their unfairly contested, hard-earned money so that she can have hers. What’s more, there are unprecedented knock-on effects to the encounters, some of them completely changing the lives of her colleagues for the worse.
Whereas editing is generally supposed to be the key to manipulating audience emotions in cinema, Two Days pays testament to the unwritten rule that immersive long takes give an earthy, human feel to the movie. Many of the conversations are single-take sequences, and every five minute scene engenders a massive sense of pathos that many films spend their entire running time accumulating, if they ever get that far at all. The foundation of the movie, however, is in the broken sense of community which has been brought on by the recession, so in the rare moments that the characters really connect emotionally, or even exhibit any positivity whatsoever, it makes for such a massive boost, and the film thus behaves as a gentle reassurance for those who, like Sandra, are struggling through hard times: the bleakness may seem relentless and suffocating, but sometimes good things can drop in your lap, be it a spontaneous act of generosity or a personal change of perspective, and it can be worth the wait. Two Days, One Night will swallow you up seemingly indefinitely, but it’ll spit you out on the other side, exhausted, but refreshed.