Two Days, One Night

10 December 2014 Film

Two Days, One Night

While many filmmakers bypass workaday drudgery, labour is central to the social realist cinema of Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Each film returns to their hometown of Seraing, an industrial city they’ve described as “a little Detroit”. People there exist hand to mouth, and having a job is crucial to all of their characters’ identity; losing one not only threatens survival, but also self-worth.

Nobody knows how much money matters more than the poor. The teenage protagonist of Rosetta (1999) lashes out after being laid off by nonchalant bosses while she is struggling to support her alcoholic mother. When the impoverished young couple in L’Enfant (2005) get pregnant, the father sells their baby. Both these devastating films won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, placing the Dardennes among a small alumni who’ve won twice.

In their latest film, Two Days, One Night, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and her co-workers at a solar panel factory are placed in an impossible situation. After a bout of depression forces Sandra to take time off, the overbearing foreman realises they can do the job without her; there’s also stigma around her illness threatening productivity. Management gives her colleagues a choice: for Sandra to stay, they must sacrifice their annual bonus.

Sandra visits each of her co-workers to implore them individually. We’re given brief glimpses into the lives of ordinary Belgians, which reveal that the quandary isn’t as simple as selfishness versus altruism. Some are living on the poverty line, unable to sacrifice the year’s worth of bills the bonus could cover. But it’s those who are lusting after the suburban dream that respond most indignantly, more concerned with the new patio than Sandra’s predicament. It’s almost a morality play, examining how capitalism pits people against one other.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t make for dour viewing. The handheld cameras and diegetic sound never feel barebones. Instead, this naturalism emphasises the subtle symphony of emotions in each exchange, with tension building as she struggles to get numbers. Cotillard gives a masterful performance as a fragile, yet determined, woman.

The economic reality may look bleak, but this is a kinder world than some of the unforgiving milieus of the Dardenne brothers’ early films. Much like in The Kid with a Bike (2011), it’s love that provides sustenance in the face of hardship. Happiness is possible, even if it isn’t easy.


» Two Days, One Night is out now

Rebecca Harkins-Cross