Belgian siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have long been heralded as two of the best directors working in European cinema today- after all, you don’t win two Palme D’or’s at the Cannes film festival for nothing. Up until now, the critical respect they’ve accumulated over five decades in the business has not translated into any impact upon mainstream cinema goers. Their new film, Two Days One Night, is likely to change all that; it shows that they are among the best “actor directors” working today (meaning they get powerhouse performances from every single cast member, no matter how small or insignificant a role), as well as dethroning Ken Loach to take the crown of cinema’s best social realist filmmakers.
It should be noted that the film wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for Marion Cotillard’s central performance. She plays Sandra, a woman who awakes one morning to find that her work colleagues have been given an ultimatum- either she gets sacked, or they don’t get their 1,000 euro bonuses at the end of the year. To make matters worse, she’s been out of the office for a considerable amount of time recovering from depression, finding that the rest of her colleagues can still do the same tasks without her there. Now she has (yes!) two days and one night to meet up with all her colleagues individually before the vote takes place to beg for them to disregard their extra pay packet and help her stay off the dole.
Although I am a fan of Cotillard as an actress, it is a common criticism that she tends to overplay her roles (most notably in La Vie En Rose and Inception). On paper, this role is incredibly easy to overplay- as the film progresses, her character gets more and more desperate as she pleads with each subsequent colleague, whilst her personal demons come back in full force. Instead, Cotillard plays it with a sense of self-awareness; her character is fully aware she’s losing her dignity, so all emotional outbursts are performed with an admirable sense of restraint.
Although it does contain one of the best central performances I’ve seen so far this year, the supporting cast equally make their presence felt, no matter how small their roles are. Part of why I think the Dardennes are the best social realist filmmakers working today is that they write all their characters in ways that make them feel lived-in, even if they only have a few lines of dialogue that don’t divulge any of their backstory. Take, for example, the colleagues that Sandra visits- in scenes that last two minutes at the most, we come to an understanding about their lifestyle, and who their characters are in ways that are fully relevant to the plot. One colleague wants Sandra to keep her job as “god says it’s the right thing to do”, another doesn’t because she needs the money to get the back garden patio fixed. Little insights like this tell us more about each of the characters than ten pages full of exposition could ever do, as well as giving us insights into different aspects of society in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s making a self-conscious “social commentary”.
I also liked that despite the bleakness of the subject matter, the film retained a sense of optimism throughout. In preparation for watching this film, I have been sporadically trying to get acquainted with the Dardennes filmography- films such as The Silence of Lorna, their immigration film from 2008, are bleak to the point of sheer misanthropy. Two Days, One Night is the best film of theirs I’ve seen because as well as having a gritty realism it has an underlying sense of humanity- the proverbial spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
If there is a criticism it’s that the subject matter doesn’t pack as much of a punch than if it was released, say, four or five years ago. I can’t speak on behalf of the socio-economic problems of Belgium, but here in the UK the recession is winding down, with the unemployment rates sinking by the day. If I saw this film a few years ago, it’s relevance to the nationwide joblessness panic would probably have made me love it a bit more; as it stands, it’s purely a terrific film on its own merits, even if it is slightly outdated in the issue its trying to address. It’s the best acted film I’ve seen so far this year, just sadly not the best.