Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne pose a number of very intriguing questions in their New York Film Festival entry, Two Days, One Night. If you had to choose between getting a raise and laying off a colleague, which would you go for? And what if you were that colleague? Would you fight for your job even after being betrayed by your co-workers? Those are the predicaments that the characters in the film face and while they are engaging to a point, the execution feels frustratingly lifeless, depressing and repetitive – although that’s likely the point.
The whole thing goes down at a solar panel factory called Solwal. Marion Cotillard leads as Sandra, an employee who’s forced to take a leave of absence due to a bout of depression. While she’s gone, the company comes to realize that they can do with one less employee so, just when Sandra returns to work, they put it to a vote. Her colleagues must choose between keeping Sandra on staff or firing her and a taking a 1,000-euro bonus each. The majority goes for the extra cash, sending Sandra spiraling back into a depression. However, with a little nudging from her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra spends her weekend driving around town, visiting her co-workers and trying to convince them to change their decision before a re-vote Monday morning.
On the one hand, this is a neat, clear-cut concept. It’s simple, easy to understand and almost instantly makes you wonder, what would I do in that situation? However, right along with that immediate interest comes some doubt as well. I don’t know much about labor laws, but it does seem as though Solwal is breaking some serious rules by deciding an employee’s fate in this manner, and especially when that employee just took time off due to depression.
But even if you overlook that possible logic issue, Two Days, One Night just isn’t all that appealing. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have much experience with depression, but it’s very hard to connect to and understand Sandra’s behavior. Yes, anyone would be upset if your colleagues chose a little extra cash over your livelihood, but after a good cry, you’ve got to do something about it whether it’s fighting to get the job back or just submitting and moving on. Sandra eventually does do the former, but it’s not because she decides to, rather because her husband insists.
Making such a downtrodden, unmotivated person the center of a film is a major risk. Cotillard nails the performance. I believed that Sandra was a deeply unhappy and troubled person who completely lost the will to fight for what she needs and loves, but that also makes her a very frustrating main character. You know you’re supposed to want her to get the job back because what’s happening to her isn’t right and her family needs the money, but you don’t really care about the end result because, on the outside, Sandra doesn’t seem to care much herself.
However, the effort to get her job back does pose another interesting question; does she even want to go back to work at a place where everyone just betrayed her? But again, that stems from the inherent curiosity that comes with the core concept, not something the Dardenne brothers develop or build upon. Everything in Two Days, One Night just is what it is and it’s all presented in such a stiff manner.
Yes, Sandra is depressed and that affects how she approaches the scenario, but regardless, from an outsider’s perspective, it’s too tough to support her cause when she doesn’t seem to care all that much about the job. There’s quite a bit of weeping, but even when she does pull herself together and hits the town to do something about it, her efforts don’t come across as wholehearted. There’s something noble about the fact that she refuses to beg or tell her colleagues that she’s got kids to earn sympathy points, but at the same time, if the job meant that much to her, wouldn’t she do everything she could to get it back?
The lack of background information doesn’t work in Sandra’s favor either. Perhaps if we knew what she’s all about, why her husband loves her so much and why she deserves her job at Solwal, that would have given the viewer enough access to the character to accept the fact that her depression is what’s diminishing her efforts, but we don’t get any of that. Why should we be expected to root for Sandra when we don’t even know if she’s any good at her job? And was she friendly with her co-workers? At times it does seem like she had relationships with some of them, but at others, it’s almost as if they’re total strangers and this is the first time she’s talking to them at all. The lack of context makes it difficult to assess her situation.
Two Days, One Night does have the benefit of boasting a core concept that’s easy to connect with courtesy of the real-life struggle for money and stability at the workplace, but the Dardenne brothers’ approach is just too monotonous for my taste. Sandra literally spends the entire movie going from door to door delivering the same modest and feeble speech asking co-workers to vote for her to keep her job. It’s not rousing and isn’t a particularly interesting or engaging way to explore her predicament.
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