Belgian writer/director brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are masters of cinema as empathy. Their films are studies of people on the margins, working class people struggling to get by or living with a modicum of comfort they fear will be taken away. With sensitive camerawork and brilliant naturalistic acting, they create small-scale portraits of lives lived in quiet desperation. They’re remarkably consistent. In their every film, from La Promisse and Rosetta to L’Enfant and The Kid with a Bike, there are characters confronted with problems that threaten to destabilize them, the filmmakers showing us with great patience and sympathy reactions and responses. They’re preternaturally attuned to moral questions, watching characters as they try their best to work them out.
In their latest, Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard plays a woman whose factory job rests in the hands of her coworkers. She’s been off work for a while dealing with debilitating depression, her husband looking after the kids and keeping the household running. Now that she’s finally ready to return, bringing in her family’s much-needed main income, the bosses have called for a vote. Money is tight, so the employees must decide between their annual bonuses and Cotillard’s job. The first vote went resoundingly to bonuses. Extenuating circumstances have allowed for a revote on Monday. When the film begins, it’s Friday. She decides to use the weekend to visit her coworkers one by one, face to face, hoping to get enough votes to save her job.
The film follows her as she enacts this sadistic game show construct foisted upon her. It’s almost too much for her to bear. We see she cries easily, would rather be staying in bed, and is generally in a bad state. She’s barely able to work again, and certainly not in any condition to be confronted with such a cruel turn of circumstances. Cotillard, in a brilliant performance rich with interiority and psychological detail, embodies the bruised psyche of a woman who has barely clawed her way back to the early hints of an even-keeled emotional state. She moves with fragility in her posture, preemptive pain in her eyes before every encounter. She hopes her presence will remind her coworkers of her humanity, and their own.
The film’s structure takes on a ritualistic movement, confronting each coworker in turn with the moral and economic calculus involved in the vote and seeing their true selves reflected in their reactions. The Dardennes tensely and inquisitively build scenes of confrontation, quickly sketching in working relationships between Cotillard and her coworkers as we hear their reasons, excuses, and evasions. The saddest thing is, the others need their bonuses, often badly, or at least for clear, convincing reasons no less important than Cotillard’s need for her job. In small, but momentous, encounters, each character must confront a crucial question, weighing the ideal collective action against their rational self-interest. What is more important? A bigger year-end paycheck or the continued employment of one of their own?
Simply structured, plainspoken, deeply felt, Two Days, One Night is a tremendous emotional wringer. It pushes a woman into an unbearably fraught condition, and watches as she desperately appeals to others for help. That her employers, the very source of her income and social interaction, have put her in this spot makes it all the worse. As an evocation of the economic construct so many live out on a daily basis – the establishment forcing the working class into conflict with each other, the better to keep them from turning conflict upwards – it’s merciless of plot. We watch this dynamic play out in these characters lives, and the Dardennes bring to it every bit of their humane specificity, charting the emotional terrains of people forced into making big decisions about another’s life. It’s a work of invigorating empathy.