Dir. Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Christelle Cornil
Arguably the greatest moment in one of the greatest movies ever made, Three Colors: Blue, comes when Juliette Binoche sees the baby mice in her apartment and knows that she’s supposed to exterminate them. A woman grieving is given the responsibility to kill; the bottom rail is on top. Two Days, One Night is more direct about that kind of change, and that it doesn’t have that kind of rib-crushing power is the reason it isn’t one of the greatest movies ever made. This is still a great movie, though, a movie which singlehandedly proves the axiom of “Less is more.” The title is simple. The one-sentence synopsis—”A woman fired from her job visits her coworkers, one by one, to plead for it”—is simple. But as the movie goes on, tiptoeing over ninety minutes, it could not be clearer that none of this is simple at all. Sandra (Cotillard), recovering from depression so bad that it’s taken her off the job for months, feels trapped by her husband’s concern for her. The more he adores her, the colder she gets. Manu (Rongione) is the force behind her, the one who pushes her over and over again to see another coworker, to speak to them before the all-important vote on Monday morning no matter how dispiriting those visits are; over the course of the weekend her rebuttals to his positive endurance become more strident and specific. Each visit to a coworker—each protestation about visiting a coworker that she makes to her husband—reveals something new about her. She doesn’t want to feel like a beggar. She genuinely understands that the thousand euro bonus that her coworkers have been promised in return for her dismissal is a real windfall, and she also understands that some of them were coerced by a nasty manager who threatened that if it wasn’t Sandra getting the axe, it might be them. She understands, as the hours pass in the weekend, that her workplace does just fine with sixteen people on the floor instead of seventeen. She even understands that her self-interest is what drives her as much as self-interest drives the others who would vote against her, and that her self-interest is not in itself more valuable than theirs. The depth of this character is her dignity, and her dignity is what separates a movie like Two Days, One Night from its more lurid peers which depict crisis with a voyeuristic glee. Maybe Sandra isn’t well-off, and maybe she’s abusing drugs, and maybe she’s struggling with mental illness, and maybe she would let go of her marriage if her husband wasn’t leaving the marks from his fingernails in her wrist. But all of this happens quietly, observed with clear eyes and never commented on by some loudmouth director. The authenticity of Sandra’s feelings are a miracle in this movie, and the movie does itself credit by believing that their authenticity is reason enough to care about them.
Two Days, One Night is about recursivity. Repetition is cheap in the picture. Phone calls from Juliette (Catherine Salée) to Sandra which Manu typically fields first. More and more Xanax for Sandra in the bathroom or with a water bottle. The same basic script with each of her coworkers, touching on the new vote, asking for their votes to restore her job, mentioning that Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet) threatened people’s jobs, giving the number of votes she has in her pocket and giving how many people are left to speak to “including you.” Typically a line about how it wasn’t her choice to make it a competition between herself and her bonus, and frequently that’s countered by a “Well, it wasn’t mine either.” This script becomes more and more familiar, which makes me think of two things:
First, that asking for something over and over again, is a kind of existential horror. (I don’t want to talk about how every movie is more stressful than Uncut Gems for the rest of my life, but come on, this movie is way more stressful than Uncut Gems.) The closest experience I’ve had to Sandra’s came during a college summer, when I pounded the pavement for a few weeks looking for someone to offer me a part-time job, and every conversation began with “Are you hiring” and was continued with “Here’s an application” or “Go to our website” or “No, we’re full” and every time it was such a leech to ask for it. I was perfectly healthy, and I was doing it for some combination of pocket money and my parents’ approval. Sandra has a husband, two children, and a house she’s trying to keep instead of returning to public housing. I was asking strangers for something impersonal. She is asking people she spends hours a day with for a sacrifice. For so much of the movie she is ruled by her feeling rather than her practicality, but the feeling of dread that must come in each conversation, coupled with the dread she already feels about her home life, must be staggering. This is an exercise which requires Sandra to take her pride, already damaged by her convalescence from a mental breakdown and lacerated with the loss of her job, and throttle it again and again and again.
Second, that it is the differences in the conversations that make the movie fascinating, just as the memorable days in our lives are the ones that snap the rigmarole. One of the people Sandra finds in the first half of her odyssey is Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev). First he finds the little girl at his place who tells her that he coaches soccer on the weekends; then he runs from a distance to come see her when he sees she’s waiting at the edge of the pitch. Sandra does not get far into her own pitch before Timur begins to weep, which is so shocking even in this early stage. What he says is entirely different from what everyone else says, and it is heartbreaking. At this point we’ve begun to wonder how fourteen of her sixteen coworkers voted against keeping her on, but Timur answers through his tears. I am so happy you’re here, he says, because I am so ashamed of my vote. You helped me on my first day, and this is how I repay you? He promises to call one of their coworkers and make her case to him. Others among her coworkers will give her more power than she walks into the room with—Anne (Cornil) ultimately leaves her husband thanks a to a row which has its roots in Sandra’s job, and Alphonse (Serge Koto) admits the real fragility in his own position at Solwal while she talks to him about hers—but no one needs her comfort. Timur’s shame is tangible (and absolutely devastating to watch), but what the Dardennes show us is that this conversation is a little jolt of healing for Sandra. Manu treats her, out of a surfeit of caution, like she’s weak. This is a movie in which she’ll confront him about what she believes is the impending death of their marriage, about the fact that they don’t have sex anymore, but the coldest things she says to him have to do with his protectiveness. He turns a song off in the car; she knows it’s because the song is sad and he’s scared it’ll trigger her; she calls him out. What she needs is control over her situation, not shielding from it, and Timur gives her an opportunity to feel like she can give rather than take.
What’s most remarkable about this movie is the way it’s shot; more accurately, what’s remarkable is how unpretentious its cinematography is in comparison to its peers. As a general rule, the fake vérité signified by handheld cameras, the frames shaking like Pete Buttigieg when he’s asked about his African-American support, is just that. Three times out of four this is a problem one expects could be solved if only you could go back in time and convince the director’s parents to give him or her more attention as a child. The Dardennes go handheld for the majority of the movie, but they have the knack. They understand that the camera as a companion is the best choice, and that companion frequently watches from the vantage point that someone traveling with her would watch from. It sits in the back seat while her husband drives her from coworker to coworker. It stands across the street while she rings someone’s doorbell. It stands in the doorway to the bathroom as she futzes around with her pills. And at the end of the movie, when, by another miracle, she is given the chance to save someone else the way she’s been begging for other people to save her, it lets her walk off alone. She no longer needs an angel on her shoulder.