Yes, Marion Cotillard is very good in Two Days, One Night, but when is she not good? The question in my mind: “Is it one of her best?” Is it even her best this year? Frankly, I think she was better in James Gray’s The Immigrant, which I also think is a better movie. (But The Immigrant just wasn’t the movie the Weinsteins chose to mount an Oscar campaign for this year — opting instead for The Imitation Game.) My biggest reservation with Two Days, One Night lies with its makers — Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I know they are the darlings of the critical set, but their hand-held minimalism is a little too hand-held and minimalist for me. I didn’t like The Son (2002) at all, but I did like Lorna’s Silence (2008) and came darn close to loving The Kid with a Bike (2011). My feelings about Two Days, One Night are closer to those on Lorna’s Silence. That’s to say the boys from Belgium have made a good film here, but not, I think, quite a great one. That it’s built around a very good performance certainly helps.
The film is essentially an indictment of how capitalism turns workers on each other to their company’s own ends. This is detailed through a very small-scale story concerning a Belgian solar panel plant that only has 17 workers. While one of them, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), was out on medical leave — being treated for depression — the company discovered that they did just fine with only 16 workers. In order to divest themselves of Sandra — who they suspect isn’t “strong” enough to come back to work anyway — they engineer a vote in which the other 16 vote for keeping her or losing their €1000 bonus (about $1200). Unsurprisingly, they mostly vote in their own favor, but Sandra’s boss offers a second vote — by secret ballot. The catch is that she only has the two days and one night of the title in which to tempt them to change their votes.
This is a shrewd device on which to hang the movie since it provides us with a built-in sense of urgency. Sandra has to visit 14 people (two had already voted for her to stay) and convince them — and often their spouses — to change their votes over the course of this one weekend. It would be a daunting task for anyone, but it’s worse for Sandra, whose depression — despite copious amounts of Xanax — threatens to overtake and paralyze her at every turn. She doubts her ability. She doubts her worthiness. She finds it hard to imagine that anyone would give up the bonus just so she can keep her job. Yet she also knows that she, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and their family can’t make do without her salary from the factory. It’s even debatable if she can get by without the structure and sense of self-worth the job provides. So she keeps on trying — even while wanting to stop and sometimes actually doing it briefly — against the odds.
What makes the story work so well lies in the fact that — apart from the bosses — the film has no real villains. All of the characters have their reasons for needing that bonus, though some of them have considerably less admirable reasons than others. The film cleverly keeps you guessing what the next encounter will bring because the reactions are so varied. Some of it works better than other parts of it. There’s a sharply melodramatic turn late in the film that asks us to buy into a very improbable recovery. But on balance, it’s solid enough — and the so-very-right ending covers just about any shortcomings. I still don’t care much for the Dardennes’ minimalist aesthetic, but I can’t deny that the results here are frequently powerful. Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements.