Two Days, One Night Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

[IFC Films; 2014]

Styles: drama, working class plight
Others: La Promesse, The Child, Rosetta, Mouchette

There are some artists that are so consistently great that it becomes easy to take them for granted or forget what makes them singular and remarkable. While the Dardenne Brothers have certainly not lost any cachet with international critics - their 2006 film, The Child put them amongst the elite group of directors (along with Coppola, Kusturica, Haneke and, oddly enough, Bille August) to win two Palme D’ors, and each new film is met with at least a warm critical reception - they are too often conspicuously absent in many critics’ lists of the world’s best living filmmakers and their films included on numerous best-of-year lists almost dutifully because of their humanistic approach to their poor, working class subjects. But as much as their humanism and their ability to find something redeemable in the most soulless of characters is crucial to their final products, the complexity and effectiveness of their visual style is too often pigeonholed as “documentary-like” simply because of their almost exclusive use of handheld cameras. This ignores the extraordinary physicality that their intimate camerawork creates, mirroring the arduous nature of the character’s existence while paving the way for their transcendence from their grueling surroundings.

The Dardennes are as much materialists as humanists and with their newest film, Two Days, One Night, it is the tactility of the world they create (Marion Cotillard’s Sandra’s pounding of the pavement functioning as both the literal and metaphorical path to her redemption, much like the relationship of Fontaine’s, in Robert Bresson’s masterpiece A Man Escaped, to the objects in his prison cell) with the camera’s destabilized relationship to its subjects, both characters and their surroundings, creating a dissonance that is reflected in Sandra’s relationship to everyone else in the film. Its central conceit is succinct and direct - Sandra is on leave for several months due to depression and when her boss realizes the company’s other 16 employees could handle the load without her, he has them vote on the option to either take a 1,000 euro bonus or allow Sandra to return to her job. After a 14-2 vote in favor of the bonuses, Sandra is given, you guessed it, two nights and one day to convince her co-workers to switch their vote in a re-vote that will happen due to one employee spreading lies that may have influenced the others.

With such a simple, even schematic setup, Two Days, One Night could have devolved into an overzealous one-side-against-the-other social drama of “great importance” or sentimental pablum that oh-so-benevolently graced its subject with much-needed pity, but the Dardenne Brothers are most masterful at striking just the right balance between focusing on the gritty realities of their typically lower class milieu and the more inspiring aspects of humanity and communal fortitude that are almost miraculously birthed from within the former. Sandra’s journey from one apartment to the next is dutifully represented in sequence with each transition marked by her physical journey either by foot, public transit or in her husband’s car and while each character represents a different aspect of humanity, they are so firmly rooted in the world the Dardennes have created that they effortlessly come across as fully-formed and three-dimensional, their words and actions seemingly coming from a place of truth rather than lines spouted by ciphers whose only purpose is only to serve as mouthpieces of the filmmakers.

It is a crucial difference, and one that is often lost on filmmakers who attempt to represent poverty and the lower class, that allows the film to breathe; for actions and emotions to develop organically from within scenes, for sentiment to remain ever-present without ever shifting into cheap sentimentality. From the one co-worker who breaks into tears, shamed by choosing money over the livelihood of a co-worker who has always done him right (and another who is most vocal about the injustice to Sandra, but who also has the least need for the additional income) to others who find Sandra’s pleas for help distasteful, arrogant, or immoral, there are neither angels nor antagonists here, merely reflections of characteristics deeply ingrained in our collective DNA. And it is in within these acutely observed aspects of humanity, not at its best or worst but simply as it is that Two Days, One Night achieves its greatness. Like all of the Dardennes’ work, every emotion is earned and each narrative beat feels like a natural extension of the one before. Even with the presence of the first legitimate star in any of their work (for years they worked almost exclusively with non-professionals) - Marion Cottillard, who delivers one of her most subtly powerful performances - Two Days, One Night is as raw and unembellished as any of their prior work. Even though the ultimate outcome of Sandra’s journey is almost beside the point, it manages to create a palpable sense of narrative and emotional tension along the way, enriching what is already a psychologically and spiritually rich film.

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