Marion Cotillard succeeds in the naturalistic ‘Two Days, One Night’

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Photo courtesy of Les Films du Fleuve

Andrew White Cleary, staff writer

‘Two Days, One Night,’ a French film with English subtitles, continues the realist style of filmmaking that marks the Dardenne brothers’ earlier efforts. The story takes place in Liège, Belgium, where Sandra Bya (played by Marion Cotillard), a worker at a solar-panel factory, suffers a nervous breakdown. During her emergency leave, her coworkers find they are all, by working slightly longer, able to make Sandra’s work-shift unnecessary – and that each will get a bonus by agreeing to this. Sandra then must contact workers, persuading enough to give up their bonuses so she isn’t laid off. She has a weekend, or (hence the title) two days and one night to do this.

Lead actress Marion Cotillard won many awards for her performances in ‘La Vie en rose’ and ‘Rust and Bone;’ her acting in ‘Two Days, One Night’ is garnering similar acclaim. Indeed her acting is very strong here, but as is said of her performances, the viewer’s mind needs time to assimilate its power. When leaving the cinema, some may ask, “Why the accolades?” There are multiple answers. For one, Cotillard has seldom played roles like these. Also, ‘Two Days, One Night’ has very little in common with generic Hollywood blockbusters, running wholly on dialogue. This means Cotillard has to carry the film, and does it well. When Sandra is travelling from house to house (often by foot), each sentence feels tired – and it does not simply have to do with exercise. Even when in better moods, the lines are subdued; her movement resembles more a wander than a normal walk. Cotillard’s acting is an evocation of Sandra’s internal struggle. Through her work, it is easier to understand where the main character, and the film itself, are coming from.

The film’s opinion on downsizing is obvious, but the Dardennes’ political stances do not interfere with the movie as a creative work, or as entertainment. The film’s pacing is helped by its screenplay; it does move slowly, but there are things to be interested in. I predict many viewers will anticipate not only the coworkers’ decisions, but the reasons for them, as the Dardennes are creative in this aspect. Sometimes they find opportunity for drama in the format: “I’d like to vote for you tomorrow…but I’m scared of the others,” a coworker at a laundromat explains. “That’s why I didn’t vote for you on Friday.” Other times, they wring a satirical comic relief from it: one worker says she will vote against Sandra because she plans on using the bonus to build a patio in her house’s backyard. In this sense, the film contains much repetition but also avoids monotony.

Adding to this strength, ‘Two Days, One Night’ contains pleasing photography. Much of it takes place outdoors, in the atmosphere of a Belgian town; camerawork, often being done by a handheld operator, immerses the viewer in the story. In one shot, Sandra and a companion walk amidst nighttime Liège, and the camera (like a fly on the wall) observes the two characters, who are seen from a distance. This shot – regarding the characters’ positioning and the setting – is fitting to the film’s social statement regarding downsizing.

I do not want to paint ‘Two Days, One Night’ as some cathartic masterpiece. In tone and story, it is the simplest of the Dardenne brothers’ 2000s works, and surely not their strongest. Simplicity is never inherently a bad thing, although it does result here in the film having less impact from a dramatic standpoint. The viewer does sympathize with Sandra as aforementioned; the Dardenne brothers’ previous efforts, however, are better as drama. They are more intricately-plotted, covering more themes and exploring a wider range of human emotion. In ‘The Kid with a Bike,’ the inventive plot twists bring about a stronger emotional investment in the story, and the average character is also given more screen time. But though there is little to ‘Two Days, One Night,’ it works. It is well-shot, and Cotillard’s performance has been a rightful contender in many awards ceremonies. Grade: a high B+.