“Two Days, One Night” is a small little character drama that still manages to pack a strong emotional punch, which seems to be the modus operandi for the Dardenne Brothers, who have built careers out of making small, intimate, smart dramas about characters that come across as very real people. These aren’t movies about crime sprees or superheroes or government spies, there are no car chases, or CG-filled set pieces. Their movies lack space battles and time travel and future wars. They just make movies about people, dealing with people problems, and they are almost always great, and this movie is no exception.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) finds out on a Friday that a ballot was taken at her place of employment, and 14 out of 16 employees voted to retain their significant bonuses at the expense of her job, as their boss explained that they could not afford to have both. This devastates Sandra because her family depends on her salary in order to not have to go back to government housing (there is a real sense of shame and despair from several characters in this movie at having to go “on the dole“), and it also makes her feel unwanted and insignificant. This is particularly bad because she is still getting over a pretty bad bout with depression and it doesn’t take much for her to want to just curl up on her bed and try to ignore the rest of the world, so right away she has to battle her depression just to deal with the idea of losing her job.
But she has a friend and a husband who won’t let her give up so easily, and they convince her to spend the weekend going around town to talk to each fellow employee individually in an attempt to keep her job. And that is pretty much the whole movie. Sandra goes through the list of people one at a time, and it takes its toll on her, especially when some of her co-workers explain to her that they simply can not vote against their bonuses, and they are more reasonable, and she just has to accept their explanations. Some of these people have families and expenses just like her and it is not their fault that their boss gave them this messed up ultimatum.
Really this ends up being a movie about having empathy. Sandra is dealing with her mental illness, which is stigmatized all around the world, and she runs into several types of people. There are those, like her friends and her husband, who understand she is struggling and needs help, and then there are those who see a “depressed” person and just figure they should cheer up, while openly wondering if she can even work as effectively as she could before. Each time Sandra comes across one of the latter, it actually pushes her back more into her depression, because it sucks to be in that mental state and then have people not be able to understand or empathize or even just sympathize. And some of them do not realize how they come across or what they are doing to Sandra, and just a little bit of understanding would go a long way.
Similarly, as Sandra goes around to each person asking for her job, some of them lay some shit on her, their own problems and issues, whether it be financial distress or family problems or work stuff, and what choice does Sandra have but to listen to them patiently and understand what they are saying. She never gets mad at any of them and often listens and expresses her understanding, and maybe she actually empathizes with them a little too much if that is even possible, because hearing other peoples’ problems weighs down on her and makes her sad, and she has to fight through those feelings to keep going to the next person to plead her case again and again. Obviously there is a balance that needs to be struck. She’s can’t take this stuff to heart too much because she allows it to dampen her outlook and her personality, but people also shouldn’t just shut out this stuff, empathy is needed at least so that the other person’s position is considered. Everyone didn’t have to just agree to Sandra’s request but some of them didn’t have to be dumb assholes about it.
“Two Days, One Night” works because of the classic approach from the Dardennes, who prefer simple set ups and straightforward storytelling in all of their movies and which works great for the stories they tell. They don’t get flashy and instead focus on the small moments that ring true, like the long moment in which Sandra waits for the new vote while it happens and she stands in a hallway, sipping a bottle of water, leaning against a wall, apprehensive, waiting for the result, and it is tense because this is what the movie has been building up to, this will be the big payoff to the story, and this moment of waiting could have been skipped over but instead it becomes a focal point. The approach and style of the movie just makes it all feel real and possible, like this could have happened, probably did happen, and probably will happen. And of course this movie isn’t going to end with a heist or an action scene of some sort, it all hinges on an emotional turn from Sandra, one that was being worked on from the opening scene, so when it comes at the end it is kind of surprising but also makes perfect sense and is emotionally satisfying in the way it was done, which then makes the whole movie a smashing success in simple yet very effective storytelling.
“Two Days, One Night” is a damn fine movie, made expertly, with great acting and a compelling story, and makes for yet another fine entry in the filmography of the great Dardenne Brothers.