“Don’t be sorry. I can understand.” says Sandra (Marion Cotillard) halfway through Two Days, One Night. Given the choice between a 1,000 euro bonus or her employment in the company, her co-workers opt for the bonus. It’s a situation, albeit fictionalized, that those who have struggled with money can relate to. The predicament of all the characters is that, just like Sandra, they are also trying to make ends meet. Some have bills to pay, while others have school fees, and some are their families’ sole breadwinners. It’s a world where everyone is losing.
Two Days, One Night succeeds because of the compelling economic tragedy at its heart. Drawing firmly from the neorealist tradition established by Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), the Dardennes illustrate with compelling drama the struggle to stay afloat in an unrelenting capitalist system. The supporting cast turns in excellent performances, but it’s Cotillard who steals the show with a performance that reminds one of the restrained depression of Björk in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000). The unifying factor between the three films being the economic tenuousness the characters are faced with.
Although Two Days, One Night focuses primarily on the struggle for economic security, the dehumanization of laborers, and the supplantation of social relationships for economic relationships, there’s more to its humanist message. Most notably, its representation of mental illness and the social pariah-hood it can cause is a side-story, but it helps to reinforce the film’s realism while heightening its emotional impact.
It becomes clear that Sandra’s absence was related to either anxiety disorder or depression, as she is shown frequently taking Xanax (a drug commonly prescribed for short term treatment of anxiety disorders). The response from her bosses is a worry that “she will not be able to work as well”, even though another worker had come back after a physical ailment. In this way, the film allies not only with workers, but with those who suffer from such disorders and who strive to upend the stigma against mental illness.
Like Bicycle Thieves, Two Days, One Night uses realism in order to place itself within a social framework. It would be impossible, for example, to make this movie as impactful as it is had the style been more reminiscent of a Hollywood drama. Instead, by using natural lighting, intimate framing, and long takes, the Dardennes create a strong sense of realism while also applying elements of unreality in order to make a compelling story.
There’s a lingering air to the whole affair, with simple shots being drawn out to give them time to settle, to heighten the moments of regularity in Sandra’s world of personal turmoil. An attempt to regain breath after a meeting with a coworker, with Sandra hanging her head out of her husband’s moving car, lingers long enough for us to bond with her, to push us past the point of anxiety. Too often it seems that the lingering shot is used as a stylistic must-do for art films, but Two Days, One Night is not trapped by its conventions, with the lingering shots used deliberately and skillfully.
While it’s story is told with the calm restraint of contemporary art-dramas, the film also has an undercurrent of thriller pacing. The high personal stakes combined with the limited timeframe and frequent spats over money make the film nerve-wracking and quick. The underlying capitalist criticism becomes apparent when workers come to blows over money. The stakes are, after all, not just Sandra’s job, but a bonus that has the potential to ameliorate monetary troubles. Still, the film’s message is ultimately one of worker solidarity, a beauty in the simple renewal of social relations, and community over cutthroat competition.
Ultimately, Two Days, One Night is successful in its aim to portray with compassionate realism the struggle of labor in a world where no moments of weakness are allowed. The Dardennes were wise in choosing Cotillard, who is magnetic in every scene, and the supporting cast is similarly skilled. Equal parts compelling, thrilling, and emotional, this film is a worthy entry in the genre of social realism.