TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (2014, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
This is the third time I’ve had the same experience with a Dardenne Bros. film — sitting there, pleasantly enjoying the movie, then the last 30 seconds come and blindside me with emotion until my watery eyes are staring at the end credits. You’d think I’d have learned by now: these guys slay the ending.
But, of course, a film is more than its ending, and as we learned from an earlier Marion Cotillard movie this year, even with a great ending THE IMMIGRANT is still just good. But, as with L’ENFANT and THE KID WITH A BIKE, the powerhouse closing is on the tail end of some pretty great cinema in its own right.
Tossing you right into the narrative, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT starts smack in the middle of the shit, with Cotillard discovering she’s lost a decision her co-workers had been voting on — whether to either receive their annual bonus (€1,000) or keep Cotillard working there. They can’t have both. But when her boss allows another, more fair, vote on Monday, Cotillard has the weekend to campaign to each of her 16 co-workers face to face, pleading with them to refuse their bonus and let her keep her job.
It’s a simple premise, a clean dramatic through line with no B-story and only character to drive everything else. This isn’t new for the Dardennes. Neither are the formal chops on display — whenever Cotillard is speaking with a co-worker, they keep her in a two-shot with the opponent, using vertical lines in the frame to separate them. When the camera does move to isolate her, it does so with purpose and to great effect. And wow, what a performance. Cotillard’s character is fighting for her life because of Belgium’s economic depression, which is tightening everyone in her class — but there’s another depression at work here, and it’s her psychological one, for which she takes a significant amount of Xanax throughout the movie. Managing to convey this depressed state while steeling herself for a fight she has to win, putting a brave face on for her children, crying in front of her husband, and keeping her cool opposite co-workers determined to put her out of a job, Cotillard is brilliant. Never goes for too much, but lets us know just enough to be right there with her.
And the Dardennes’ camera is right there too, pounding the pavement next to her as she goes from house to house, cafe to laundromat to soccer pitch, lending just the right tone to the political underpinnings of this campaign. We’re asked to think about class, about age, about labor, about money, about drugs, and about common human decency. And somehow it never feels didactic, even when the plot itself throws in a couple of contrivances. Trumping even all of these rich socio-political topics is an existential question about the quest — the fight, the struggle to roll that boulder up the hill. As Camus would say, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.