Two Days, One Night

Things are tough all over. I gather they are tough in Belgium anyway, because directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made a film about a young mother named Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard, who is in danger of losing her job at a solar panel company. Sandra struggles with depression and is set to come back from extended sick leave. In her absence, the company has discovered that they can get by with one less person. So they present this choice to their workers: bring Sandra back or forego their bonuses for the year. They take a vote on Friday, which doesn’t go Sandra’s way. Sandra and another supporter at the company convince the manager to hold one more vote on Monday. She has the weekend to change enough minds to keep her job.
You see the danger here, right? This is a repetitive plot. The movie is a series of very similar conversations. In lesser hands it could become boring. The filmmakers even emphasize this. In every conversation, Sandra explains the situation. And these are scenes, not a montage. They even exchange pleasantries, saying, “Hello,” and “Have a good weekend.” During the few phone calls, they say goodbye to each other. You almost never see that in movies and TV, because it slows the pace too much.
What saves this movie is the acting, specifically Marion Cotillard’s. She shows us a woman, not only struggling with her unfair situation but with her own demons. Sandra hates doing this; every conversation takes something out of her. When her coworkers get upset or start arguing with her or even get blubbery when explaining why they need the bonus, her instinct is to quit. Her mood shifts with the outcomes of the conversations. When they go her way, she smiles and is optimistic; when they don’t she pops some more Xanax and curls up in the passenger’s seat in the car, while her longsuffering husband, Manu, played by Fabrizio Rongione, worries about her.
The most impressive thing is that you don’t really like Sandra. She’s a bit whiny. And yet Cotillard makes you care about what happens to her. Much of the camera time is spent in close-ups of her expressive face.
In a film like this, you wouldn’t expect there to be much in the way of inspiring visuals. But once again the Dardenne’s emphasize what could have been a weakness. The composition of the shots is cluttered, showing telephone poles and the rundown exteriors of the houses, emphasizing the mundane details of lower middle class life in Belgium.
About halfway through the film, I noticed that when the conversation wasn’t going Sandra’s way, they would compose the shot so that a vertical line would separate her from the other person, usually a doorway or the corner of a building. It may be a little obvious but it’s an interesting use of the camera in what could have been a visually uninteresting film.
I have a few gripes. Manu, her husband is a little too saintly. It’s hard to imagine anybody in that situation not getting a little impatient with her. I won’t spoil it but there is something that happens towards the end that strains credibility.
But overall Two Days One Night is a very good film.

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