There is this little annual film festival in the French Riviera that takes place in the town of Cannes—you might have heard of it. There are only a handful of filmmakers who have won the prestigious Palme d'Or more than once, a group that includes such hallowed company as Francis Ford Coppola, Shohei Imamura, and Michael Haneke. Also in this crowd are the Belgian brothers Dardennes, Luc and Jean-Pierre, former documentarians-turned chroniclers of working-class misery. Although their latest entry to the canon of crying, Two Days, One Night, did not win the 2014 Palme d'Or, it competed for it, and deserves every bit of attention it's been getting, not the least of which is generated by star Marion Cotillard's Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Cotillard is Sandra Bya, a welder at a solar panel manufacturing plant who is about to return to work after a leave of absence brought on by depression. She has proclaimed herself to be "in shape" to work again, and no sooner does that happen that she receives news that she has been voted out of the company by her peers, in order to keep their 1,000-Euro bonus, which is about $1150 here in 'Murica, a tidy sum for anyone on the socio-economic ladder. Despairing initially, she is brought to action by her incredibly optimistic and irrepressible husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), who motivates her to petition each of her 16 co-workers—in person, mind you—to rethink their vote when they recast the ballot on the following Monday. The kicker is that by allowing Sandra to stay, they would not only be forgoing their bonus, but also everyone else's at the company, something that those folks cannot afford to varying degrees.
To call the Dardennes' style "stripped-down" is to ignore the emotion that it chiefly inspires, which is empathy. Cotillard is in every single frame of this film, so we are never allowed respite from her desperate situation (Manu's a waiter at a fast-food joint, so it's either her salary or back to social housing for them and their two young kids). Sandra faces incredible odds in achieving her goal, and she regularly gives up on it, only to be resurrected by Manu's prodding and an increasingly unsettling amount of Xanax. The reactions she provokes in her co-workers are wildly different from each other, which gives the film a sense of variety and surprise; you never know if someone will tearfully agree to help her, or to lash out violently at the mere thought of losing their bonus. And aside from some brief diegetic rock music from the car stereo, the film is unaccompanied by any score.
In the hands of someone like, say, Lee Daniels, Two Days would be yet another example of the ever-more-common genre of poverty porn, in which the travails of the less fortunate are exploited for our voyeuristic pleasure (see: Precious). But the Dardennes are not interested in that approach, because it would distract us from the reality that terribly tragic stuff like what happens in this film is ubiquitous among the lower-class. Their films never assume to be more than slices of life, yet they become universally relevant because of their modesty. We feel immensely for Sandra, in huge part because of Cotillard's performance, but she is no angel. She is, in fact, an incredibly difficult person to live with, someone who is prone to saying stuff to her husband like, "I don't exist. I'm nothing. Nothing at all!" and "It's only a matter of time before we split up." These lines may seem melodramatic here, but in the context of Sandra's crushing depression, they feel all too real.
You may have met a Sandra in your real life: I know I have. That's the other reason why I identify so strongly with her. The Dardennes excel in getting us to situate ourselves in their characters' positions because they draw them so vividly and prevent us from looking away. Like Belgian superstar before her, Cecile De France, Cotillard fits right into the milieu crafted by the Dardennes, despite her devastating, iconic beauty. Although Cotillard has certainly looked better in other films, she doesn't go full-on haggard like leads in an American film might—I don't think she's got on any fake teeth. That's important, because physical alteration to her might have proven to be distracting. Instead, she adopts a mannish, no-bullshit gait as she walks around, an activity that occupies her mostly throughout the film as she visits each of her co-workers. She is also weighed down by a shoulder bag that causes her shoulders to stoop, which may have also been brought about by the physical aspect of her job that is at stake. It's another in a long line excellent work by the actress, who gets more interesting as she passes age 40.
On the Filmspotting podcast, Adam Kempenaar talks a lot about the idea of "stakes," in that they determine whether he can accept the drama at the center of the story. We've seen plenty of movies about the positions of the rich and wealthy being threatened, but what about those of the poor? I don't know that there are higher stakes than the ones posed in Two Days, One Night, and they make for gripping, excellent filmmaking.