Deux jours, une nuit:
Cotillard Shines In Weary, Wonderful
The Dardenne brothers are no strangers to struggle. The Belgian brother/filmmaker duo has, in fact, made a career out of it – they’ve garnered more than fifty award nominations for their films, and have been writing, producing and directing for nearly thirty years. Their first major international success was with Rosetta, the story of a brash young woman searching for employment in order to escape her calamitous life at home. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, and the Dardennes have consistently received honors and nominations from the festival ever since. Their continued success and rigorous creative vision has secured their position as filmmakers who aren’t afraid of documenting the reality of unemployment, and the splendor and brutality of blue-collar life in modern Belgium.
Thus, it feels appropriate that the Dardennes should return to Cannes fifteen years later with Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night), a drama centered on a working-class woman’s struggle to win her job back by convincing her coworkers to let her stay employed. Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, The Immigrant) stars as Sandra, a woman recovering from a recent nervous breakdown who returns to work only to discover she’s been fired. Her termination is the result of a vote held by her coworkers who opted for a pay bonus in exchange for Sandra’s employment. After she convinces her boss to hold another vote on Monday, Sandra spends the weekend (literally two days, one night) tracking down her coworkers and attempting to persuade them to let her stay.
The authenticity of the performances (especially Cotillard’s, for which she earned an Academy Award nomination in 2015) and the tenacity of the cinematography (helmed by longtime Dardenne-collaborator Alain Marcoen) fully realize the kind of honesty characteristic of a Dardenne production. The use of hand-held cameras and the lack of cuts between scenes evokes a potent realism: the viewer follows Sandra as she walks, climbs, and (sometimes) stumbles her way across town to confront, appeal to, and (sometimes) be denied by her coworkers. We witness her victories and sympathize with her losses, yet we are removed from them. There are even moments that feel inappropriate to watch, as if, despite the appreciation or closeness we gains for Sandra, we can’t do anything for her, and are consequently resigned to silently watching, hopelessly eavesdropping on a problem we cannot rectify.
The reality of the film is perhaps its most captivating quality. The repetition of certain actions or exchanges may seem dull to most American audiences, but it’s the familiarity of these small activities that add to the immersive nature of the film. Do we need to watch Sandra each time she naps or takes an anti-anxiety pill? Maybe not, but would we feel as exhausted, voracious, or strung out without it? Would we feel the wash of relief with every small triumph or the sting of rejection after every mumbled sigh of regret, without following her to each house, listening to her rehearse each statement, only to watch her turn around and leave empty-handed?
The film’s emphasis on physical spaces and actions is striking and emphasizes Cotillard’s meticulous performance. The act of physically asking someone to root for you while understanding they could say no and be under no obligation to explain why is daunting to say the least – most of us would rather take Sandra’s lead and give into the insurmountable odds, crawl into bed and forget about the world.
Sandra does eventually visit each one of her coworkers, however, either on her own accord or as a result of her husband and friends’ exhortation. The film flows as one continuous story, from person to person, conversation to conversation. Instances of drama that would typically be emphasized in classical cinema remain unprocessed — we get the bumps and unevenness of everyday life. The viewer, along with Sandra, feels the weight of each encounter: the anxiety-ridden moments before, the laundry list of reasons and explanations, and the success or disappointment that follows. In an age when so much of our media is polished, filtered and cropped, it’s both surprisingly refreshing and strangely unnerving to witness something so explicitly authentic.
For the Dardennes, Deux jours, une nuit is a flex of the cinematic muscles. Though it left Cannes unrewarded, the true prize is the fact that the film, in all its anguish and unabashed authenticity, will resonate beyond the confines of any one awards season. The Dardennes have once again proven that the power of reality, coupled with an acute patience for the smaller things in life, result in a magnificently weary work of art.