TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (2014)
Running Time: 95 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Language: French and Arabic w/English subtitles
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salee, Batiste Sornin, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Lara Persain, Alain Eloy, Myriem Akeddiou, Olivier Gourmet
There’s a reason that the aphorism “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is called the golden rule, and that is because the statement is the gold standard, representing the most basic rule of civilized conduct among people. If you put yourself into another person’s shoes, and thereby really get to know what makes the other human being tick, this should give you pause before doing something that you would never want done to you. Probably no filmmaker believes that more than Belgians Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. They started their careers by making videos of the rough lives of blue collar people in the Wallonie, a mostly French speaking region of southern Belgium, parlaying into ROSETTA, about a blue collar working with an alcoholic mother who tries to better himself in a small town.
We can easily see the Dardennes’ themes in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, motifs like consciousness-raising, giving helping hands to your neighbors, and the importance of forgiveness and redemption. But being on the right side of moral issues does not always a strong film make. This is where TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT fails as cinema while it might succeed as a sermon in church or in grade school.
Its principal problem is an excess of naturalism. Instead of a compelling script, the Dardennes rely on the undramatic perambulations of one Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a woman in desperate need of keeping her salaried job with a small Belgian company of sixteen or seventeen employees. In a situation that we in the States would find difficult to believe but could conceivably be old hat in semi-socialistic countries in Europe, Sandra is just emerging from an extended sick leave for depression, expecting to return to her job only to find that Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), her foreman, has been using his influence to dump her entirely. The gimmick is: the sixteen workers, who have been promised €1,000 each as a bonus, are to vote. The company, which produces solar panels and is under stiff Asian competition, can afford to give out the bonuses only if M. Dumont (Batiste Sornin) can fire a worker, namely Sandra. A vote is arranged to ascertain the workers’ will. Only two out of sixteen are willing to forego their bonuses so that Sandra can keep her job.
Now, we wonder whether the Dardennes are shaking a finger at any worker who would rather keep the bonus by throwing Sandra under the bus. Maybe not. Maybe they’re simply telling it like it is: these are the politics of working-class Belgians. At any rate, when only two workers agree to allow her to keep the job, she appeals for a new vote on Monday, then goes around from co-worker to co-worker to lobby for her employment. Most employees sound sympathetic but protest that they absolutely need the money—to complete a home improvement needed to protect the house structure, to pay for their children’s education, to subsidize a wife who is on the dole, whatever. Sounds reasonable to me, and I’m a union man.
But as a union man, I nonetheless put myself into the shoes of the company executives whose plant is continuing to make scant profits, a company which, if in America with our mere eight percent unionization, would simply fire the worker. More important the particular worker in danger had been on sick leave for depression, is still addicted to Xanax, may very well return to work and fall into a renewed state of depression, and is simply too unstable to keep around if her employment means no bonuses to sixteen mostly needy people.
Of course, any Marxist or even person somewhat on the political left would add that the company is using a technique of dividing workers against themselves. But this is all beside the point. The point we should really consider is: is the film compelling or is it simply an “issue” movie, and this looks like the latter. If we put the “issue” aside, we get a tedious merry-go-round of Sandra’s lobbying wherein she interviews all her colleagues over the weekend to get most to change their votes. Some sound sorrowful but “we need the money.” Two men speak their minds, demanding that Sandra stop “pissing me off,” which she does seem to be doing as two characters imply, by taking money out of their pockets. She tells them not to pity her, but what other emotion can she expect? She tells her husband Manu (Dardennes’ regular Fabrizio Rongione) the same. Again, what does she expect?
The film’s good reviews will come largely from critics dazzled by Marion Cotillard’s performance. She is arguably one of France’s best actresses, having contributed a riveting performance as Stephanie, a double amputee in Jacques Audiard’s RUST AND BONE and is known to a more mainstream audience for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and ANCHORMAN 2. But this time, she is thwarted by a script that’s all too minimalist, leading to a plot with all the suspense and excitement of a presidential candidate’s staff going door to door to summon votes.
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT overstays its welcome even at a normal 95 minutes’ length. The film won “Best Picture” from New York Film Critics Online, which more logically awarded Marion Cotillard a “Best Actress” citation. But compare it to other foreign dramas like Sweden’s remarkable FORCE MAJEURE, set against a gorgeous mountain landscape, or Argentina’s satiric masterpiece WILD TALES (which I consider the best film of 2014), and you’ll better see how truly slight this Belgian contribution can be.
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