Themes of social dispossession and its emotional impact have dominated the films produced by the Belgian Dardennes brothers. Somewhat unusually, their latest venture into social realism tackles these themes pretty much head on, achieving a result that asks political questions of its protagonists and gets some interesting answers but occasionally stumbles into didactic repetitiveness.
In Deux jours, une nuit, Sandra (Cotillard) is a young woman recovering from depression. Returning to work after an extended sick leave, she learns that her job is in jeopardy. She’s given a weekend to persuade her colleagues to forego a €1000 bonus and keep her on instead. Sandra’s initial reaction is the passive desperation of someone mourning lost confidence and Cotillard gets deep inside harassed frailty as she fights her own demons and those of market exigencies. Aside from one episode of exaggerated despair the screenplay is absolutely credible, with just enough variety in the exchanges between Sandra and her colleagues to justify an almost formulaic repetition of arguments expounding individual working class circumstance (“I need the bonus to send my kid to college”) versus essential solidarity. (“Look what happens when employers create unfair choices.”)
Cinematographically, the parameters here are naturalist: handheld camera, sudden cuts and plenty of open, seemingly untutored shots that attach themselves to Sandra’s face and slightly hunched figure as she navigates the Belgian suburbs. Thematically, the parameters are dialectic: a discursively Socratic approach to achieving agreement. Combining these elements leads to a slightly more deliberate narrative and the visceral thrust of earlier Dardennes’ work has retreated in favour of a more structured approach. In fact, the film starts with a shot of Sandra sleeping, the implication being that she’s been kissed awake by the struggle for justice—not exactly a delicate maneuver. But given that Deux jours, une nuit is ultimately about coherence and cohesion, that’s probably a price that had to be paid.
Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) | Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes (Belgium, France, Italy 2014) with Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione. Starts October 30
Originally published in issue #132, November 2014.