The Dardenne Brothers return with another tale of class struggle in the gritty confines of Liege, Belgium. Marion Cotillard stars as a woman recovering from a bout with depression and facing termination from her job at a solar panel factory. She has been informed by her boss (Batiste Sornin) that unless she can convince her coworkers to forgo their annual bonuses, he will be forced to fire her. With a vote looming on Monday, the shy, emotionally shaky Cotillard must spend a desperate weekend knocking on doors and pleading her case.
Cotillard’s well deserved Oscar nominated performance is the draw here, but at first it’s tough to determine exactly what the Dardennes are up to. The script is almost too simple and sparse, without any backstory of how Cotillard arrived at her current dire circumstances. Without this information, it’s hard to fully appreciate the deliberations of her coworkers, some of whom clearly feel a strong a empathy for her plight while others are stubbornly unmoved. There are vague allusions to some tragic event, but Cotillard’s history remains a cypher. In a way, I wondered if the film was an unofficial sequel to Rosetta (1999), with Emilie Dequenne’s scrappy - and equally unbalanced - street urchin reprised by Cotillard as a full fledged adult with family and responsibilities.
The Dardennes are at their best when placing wounded bulls in various china shops. While the manic Rosetta had to be forcefully removed from her factory job and the fiery Kid with the Bike virtually destroys a doctor’s office to escape an orphan’s life, Cotillard is weak and fatalistic in comparison. As a result, Two Days, One Night lacks the energetic drive and indomitable, if hopeless, sheer will that propels and sustains the brothers’ previous work. That task falls on the exquisite shoulders of Cotillard, and her evocation of a damaged character summoning every once of courage is extraordinary. This is a softer, more reflective Dardenne cinema, one that trades the harsh trappings of documentary techniques for an outwardly sunny view of a stormy inner landscape.
A number of Dardenne regulars appear in supporting roles. The great Olivier Gourmet has a bit part as the factory’s loathsome foreman, Fabrizio Rongione (Rosetta’s erstwhile boyfriend) plays Cotillard’s long suffering husband and that Kid with the Bike, Tomas Doret, is all grown up and makes a brief appearance a factory worker. While it’s good to see these familiar faces, it’s Cotillard who must do the heavy lifting and the script often restrains her and doesn’t give her a lot to work with. However, Cotillard can signal more with her eyes than most actors can convey with reams of dialogue and - like Rosetta and her wine bottle fish snares - the Dardennes are setting a clever and subtle trap.
Two Days, One Night brings a bitter irony in its denouement as Cotillard is presented with a face saving solution; one that may change her from hapless prey into ruthless predator. Here we feel her predicament in full force, having been given enough information to create informed opinions and sympathies. Suddenly it’s clear that’s been the Dardenne’s game all along and once again they’re several chess moves ahead. It’s easy to numbly regard unknown lives as mere statistics, but behind every number there is a face, a life and a personal struggle to survive. It’s always worse when it happens to someone you know, and the Dardennes have forced us to take the time and make the emotional investment to get to know yet another struggling soul on society’s fringe. And this time we had to work for it, which makes our reward all the sweeter.