The Dardenne brothers present people in troubling scenarios, and never judge their resulting decisions.
Doing something over and over again and expecting a different result: it’s the incessantly overused definition of insanity often attributed to Albert Einstein, and it bears remembering in contemplating the construction and impact of the Dardenne brothers’ latest film. With purpose and precision, writer/director siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc set their protagonist a task that calls for replication, plainly but never simply. Expectations remain the same each time, pessimistic as they may be, but in this treatise on self-serving versus self-sacrificing actions, the outcome can’t be as reliably predicted.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard, The Dark Knight Rises) takes a phone call that sparks many others, learning that she will lose her job so that the rest of the company can obtain a cash bonus. Hope is not lost, not to her colleague Jeannette (Catherine Salée, Blue is the Warmest Colour) or her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione, Violette); however long-standing depression sees Sandra far from confident. One by one over the weekend, she approaches her co-workers to convince them to vote for her to stay, and against them receiving the money.
In Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit), the Dardennes let the bulk of their narrative play out as its description unassumingly suggests, with Sandra calling and visiting as many of her workmates as she can. Even if the people and places change, the act can only be repetitious, as she states her case and hears many of the same answers. And yet, in being told of the guilt at seeing her go, or the desperate need for the windfall regardless of the cost, glimpses of reason and rationale seep through – as do surprises. It is easy to believe that the kind will put her needs first, and that the greedy will refuse to acquiesce, but the screenplay, like human nature in general and the Belgian working-class life it specifically depicts, is never that straightforward.
Each short chapter is a vignette of intimate motivations, both moral and economic, surrounded by the overarching context of Sandra’s diminishing mental state. As the former cycles through the alternatives, so does the latter, in a masterclass of demonstrating anxiety at its most palpable. That the filmmakers have made a career of careful reactions, never needing to overplay the moment or dwell in overdone sentiment, of course works in their favour. The air of the matter-of-fact infuses every conversation, response and deed done, always as subtle and earnest as real life, and as relatable. As the icing on the cake as well as a form of catharsis, two exquisite musical interludes drift into the dialogue-fuelled effort as a way of re-setting the momentum.
Though the camera follows the clearly frazzled Sandra as she frets and frays, sometimes overtly, mostly with the awkwardness of trying to cover up her suffering, it retains as tight a focus on the character as the film does on its concept and structure. Control over every aspect of the film is gripping and edge-of-the-seat extremes are achieved even when the feature delves into yet another seemingly futile plea for compassion. The texture of the pressure is provided by the usual astute Dardenne-style social commentary, but their approach is always to present people in troubling scenarios, and never to judge their resulting decisions, only the means beyond their control that has made it so. Every person in the narrative experiences his or her own version of Einstein’s phrase, reaching for something over and again, and wanting things to be different to how they seem.
Unavoidably and expertly, Cotillard is instrumental in the affecting way the feature plays out. Hers is an enactment of small gestures and shaded emotion that perfects the representation of someone for whom everything is a struggle, even before the incursion of the portrayed circumstances. In nigh on every frame, she fills the screen with obvious fragility and survivalist persistence that laps around the sympathetic, surly, uncertain and angry treatment she receives in turn. The question of sanity never rears its head, only the question of exceeding the anticipated – and in the story as well as the film’s entire package, Two Days, One Night more than performs.
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars
Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Belgium / Italy / France, 2014, 95 mins
Sydney Film Festival
4 – 15 June