'Two Days, One Night' pits practical necessities against moral choices

‘Two Days, One Night’ pits practical necessities against moral choices

“Two Days, One Night” is available streaming from Amazon and other services. It was my No. 1 film of 2014 — and that of a number of my peers. People who suffer from depression sometimes say it feels like being underwater. You move in slow motion, if at all, and

Two Days, One Night” is available streaming from Amazon and other services. It was my No. 1 film of 2014 — and that of a number of my peers.

People who suffer from depression sometimes say it feels like being underwater. You move in slow motion, if at all, and only with great effort. Words are useless. There are people around you, but their voices are distant and muffled. Imagine being able to see the surface rolling above your head but unable to reach it.

Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, the protagonist of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest treasure, “Two Days, One Night,” as a woman almost too exhausted to keep swimming — almost, but not quite, or not all the time.

The first shot finds her asleep on the couch while her mobile phone rings offscreen, and we can see what an effort it costs her to get up and answer it, to talk normally about normal things. Then a timer goes off and she must take a tart out of the oven. The tart is for her children. The world won’t leave her alone.

“Two Days, One Night” is not about depression. It is about self-interest and empathy, practical necessities and moral choices. It’s about the importance of work and the ruthlessness of economics based purely on self-interest and competition. I can think of no film that more persuasively or powerfully illustrates in human terms what popes from Leo XIII to Francis have been talking about for more than a century regarding the dangers of pure capitalism unrestrained by moral concerns.

Sandra has just lost her job, a factory position at a small company — a blow that came after only just returning to work following a debilitating nervous breakdown. Worse, it was her own coworkers, forced by management to choose between keeping Sandra on the team and getting their annual bonuses — 1,000 euros, or, as one coworker puts it, “a year’s gas and electric bills” — who voted her out of a job.

“I don’t exist,” Sandra tells her supportive husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione). “I’m nothing. Nothing at all!”

She doesn’t have the energy to fight back, but she won’t be allowed to give up either. A caring coworker goes to bat for her, arguing that people had been pressured to vote against Sandra and there should be a second ballot. Then, gently prodded by Manu, Sandra forces herself to do what she can to save her job: During the longest, hardest weekend of her life, she seeks out each of her coworkers to ask them to help her keep the paycheck her family needs and stay off the dole.

Like all the Dardennes’ films, “Two Days, One Night” has a naturalistic, immediate feel reflecting the brothers’ documentary roots, though in fact this is a carefully controlled effect. They usually work with relative unknowns, though their last film, “The Kid with a Bike,” costarred a well-known actress, Cecile de France. Cotillard is by far the biggest star they’ve ever worked with, but she interiorizes her character’s blue-collar milieu and quiet desperation without a hint of Hollywood glamour or heightened drama.

Although the story is essentially a parable, every character, setting, and situation is specific and concrete. Sandra finds her coworkers and their families living their own lives. Sometimes they aren’t at home; one is moonlighting as a stock clerk, another is coaching a kids’ soccer team, still another is at a laundromat.

Their reasons for wanting or needing their bonuses likewise vary. One has a spouse who is already on the dole, another is scraping for money to pay for kids’ education, still another has left her husband and is starting a new life with another man — and their house has no deck.

None of these people are villains, though some clearly have better reasons than others, and respond more or less humanely to Sandra’s plea. Two react with startling emotion, of very different kinds.

In all her struggles, Sandra’s greatest asset is her relationship with Manu, who encourages her to carry on and does what he can to keep her from falling apart. He holds her when she breaks down in tears, tries to help her be there for the kids, and notes with concern the frequency of her Xanax-popping. My friend and fellow critic Jeffrey Overstreet calls Manu a strong candidate for his all-time favorite cinematic husband character.

In a vulnerable moment, Sandra fears Manu will ultimately be able to only pity her, not love her; her depression has taken a toll on their sex life, but Manu is even encouraging about that. Then later she feels Manu is being too protective, as when he turns off a depressing song on the radio, English singer Petula Clark’s French-language version of “Needles and Pins.” (In a welcome flash of bravado, Sandra grins as she turns up the song.)

Sandra’s most important exchange with a coworker is the last, late on Sunday evening. It is important not only dramatically in this film, but also because, possibly the first time in one of the Dardennes’ films, a crucial moral choice is given an explicitly religious motivation.

Although they are not religious, the Dardennes have often been described as spiritual filmmakers. In 2011 they were selected by the Pontifical Councils for Culture and for Social Communications for the Robert Bresson Prize, an annual honor awarded at the Venice Film Festival to filmmakers in recognition of work that attests “the search for spiritual meaning in our lives.”

Yet any religious resonances in their films are usually oblique. “The Son” (2002) is full of New Testament echoes, but there are no explicit religious references or symbols. “Two Days” has oblique elements as well; consider Manu’s name, a nickname for Emanuel.

The Dardennes’ best characters usually make moral choices for reasons that are unstated or mysterious to the viewer or even to the characters themselves. Here, for perhaps the first time, a character, Alphonse (Serge Koto), says that the selfless choice “is what God tells me to do. I have to help my neighbor.”

At the 2014 New York Film Festival, I had an opportunity to ask the Dardennes about this choice. Through a translator, they replied, among other things, that this seemed to them the right motivation for this particular character. Perhaps among 16 blue-collar coworkers it makes sense that one (an immigrant, perhaps an African) is a devout believer. Yet in a number of ways, the film gives both his choice and his motive decisive importance.

This is not because of the outcome of the second vote, or not directly. The film’s master stroke is that, having spent the whole film building up to the second vote, the climax ultimately turns on something else.

It is significant, I think, that the Dardennes gave this explicit religious motivation to a minor figure rather than to the protagonist or a major character. This choice accords with their customary approach to the central moral choices that drive their stories, and perhaps reflects their strategy for addressing a profoundly secular European culture. Yet in an indirect way, Alphonse’s choice and motives become decisive in the last moments of the film. We have to help our neighbor.

What we get in the end is neither the happy ending we rooted for nor the crushing defeat we feared, but something unexpected, at once more sobering and more liberating. “Two Days, One Night” is a film to be grateful for — a film that is a privilege to write about, though it doesn’t need my review or any other. Like most of the Dardennes’ work, it is lucid and complete, and says eloquently for itself all that needs to be said.

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