Two Days, One Night

The description of the film is simple enough: a woman (Marion Cotillard) has one weekend to convince her co-workers to sacrifice a pay raise so that she can keep her job.

Simple but scathing, quiet and moving, Two Days, One Night—the new film from the Dardenne Brothers—struck a powerful chord here at Cannes today. With the festival passing its midpoint, journalists at the film’s press conference hurled calls of “bravo” when the Belgian siblings entered.

Over the past 15 years, the Dardenne Brothers have had a storied relationship with this festival. Their 1999 film Rosetta won the Palme d’Or and a best actress award for Émilie Dequenne; in 2002, Olivier Gourmet was awarded the best actor prize for his performance in The Son; and in 2005 the Dardennes won the Palme d’Or again, for L’Enfant. Lorna’s Silence received the best screenplay award in 2008, and three years ago The Kid With a Bike was given the Grand Prize.

Those familiar with the Dardennes’ movies will find the setting, characters, and filmmaking familiar. Two Days, One Night, a film about working-class realities and tough decisions, is the story of Sandra, a woman who seems to be bouncing back. A married mother of two, she’s emerged from welfare and public housing, and works at a solar-panel plant. She’s recently returned after a bout with depression when a Friday afternoon phone call informs her of a ticking-clock deadline regarding her job. While she was home getting better, the company found a way to do her work without her. If her co-workers will just put in a couple of extra hours per week, her employers can eliminate her position as non-essential and give the others a salary boost.

“Solidarity is a moral commitment,” Luc Dardenne explained at the press conference, summarizing the key theme driving their new story. “The economic crisis doesn’t foster solidarity. Solidarity is something that has to be built.”

Armed with Xanax pills, Sandra works like a door-to-door salesman (or a savvy politician), taking to the streets to lobby on behalf of herself and her family with the help of her husband (Fabrizio Rongione). Through individual meetings and phone calls, Sandra reaches out to her colleagues and discovers that each one is having just as tough of a time. She doesn’t want pity, and she doesn’t want to beg, so at numerous moments she’s understandably ready to throw in the towel. As Sandra fights for and frets over her job, we witness how fragile she still is. The stakes for her future become clear as the story unfolds.

Two Days, One Night

The face of the famous actress playing the lead in Two Days, One Night is quickly forgotten as the quiet drama intensifies over the course of the film’s 95 minutes. Each of Sandra’s encounters with co-workers—she needs to convince nine to vote with her against the company’s proposal—complicates the picture a bit more. The responses she elicits from her colleagues (and the audience) are intense: anger, tears, sympathy.

“I am deeply touched by survivors,” Cotillard said, seated alongside the Dardenne Brothers at the press conference.”“I am deeply moved by people who manage, who cope despite certain situations. I learn about human beings and the human condition when I play these roles.”

As Sandra’s Monday morning deadline approaches and the story reaches its final minutes, the sense of dread is real.

It took the Dardennes some time to find the ending to their film. Which way would Sandra’s 16 co-workers vote? The filmmakers struggled with a few options and were unsatisfied until they got to know their character so well that the conclusion was suddenly obvious.

“We’ve tried in this ending to show how the solidarity changed her,” Jean-Pierre Dardenne said this morning. “We show how solidarity can really change people.”

Two Days, One Night opens tomorrow in France and later this year in the United States.