Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has a problem. Let it rest at that for the moment – to say much more, at least right here, would be a disserve to Two Days, One Night, the latest masterpiece from Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. To call the film a masterpiece feels almost boring at this point; the two seem incapable of doing anything but just that, to the point at which you almost want them to make a bad movie, or even just a merely quite good one, just to make my life as a critic a little more interesting. Instead, of course, they added another entry to their momentous ledger of artistic achievement, a ledger that, with the same quiet, pensive understatement that defines their films, stands as a comprehensive exhibit in the case for the brothers Dardenne as the world’s best working filmmakers. Maybe the best ever.
My superlative allotment may be officially exhausted – and really, if that won’t convince you to see the movie, what will? – but fortunately Two Days, One Night rewards careful, detailed retrospection. The film, though not obscure, is not about precisely what it seems; instead, almost like a classic fable, telling stories about permanent, fundamental questions of the human experience. Indeed, anchored by an all-time great performance from Cotillard, supported by equally touching and often-haunting performances from the rest of the cast, Two Days, One Night is the most humane movie I’ve seen since…well, since the last time I saw a film by the Dardennes.
Sandra has a problem. At first, it seems like the problem is her job – she’s losing it, after a long medical absence, following a vote by her coworkers at a solar plant to receive a bonus at the expense of her position. Yet, given a chance at a revote, she has the weekend to find and convince her coworkers, one by one, to sacrifice their thousand-euro check to keep her and her family afloat. Her economic situation is precarious – she, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and their two children live in Liège, where unemployment approaches 12% (nearly twice as high as any US state presently, and higher than 33 states and DC have ever experienced since records have been kept) – and yet that precariousness also applies to her colleagues, to varying degrees, each afraid of what they might lose, whether it’s their patios, homes, or dignity. But what becomes clear as Sandra’s quest continues is that the true stakes are vastly greater for Sandra; not just her self-worth, but her ability to self-determine her self-worth, hangs in the balance.
I must stop here to take stock the costs of depression. Depression is one of the most devastating diseases known to man. Depression afflicts at least 7% of American adults, and likely more; as a stigmatized illness, many will refuse to name or acknowledge their suffering, even to themselves. Fewer than half of individuals suffering from depression are treated at all; only a fifth of them receive treatment that is even minimally adequate. Depression is intimately linked to suicide. Depression can devastate employment and community, friendships and familial bonds. Few films have addressed this illness with as much empathy, compassion, and urgency as Two Days, One Night, and for that alone this is a vital milestone in cinema.
The Dardennes succeed because they do what is necessary and no more. They only show what is necessary. They only cut when necessary. They only move the camera when necessary. They only use music when necessary. What makes them not merely economical but effervescent is their uniquely keen insight into necessity itself. In this way they are most similar to those other brothers making beautiful, stark, poetic, soulful cinema (and perhaps their only real contenders for the best working filmmakers). In an unusually insightful interview, Joel Coen once said of Barton Fink “The question is: Where would it get you if something that’s a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn’t get you anywhere.” And while nothing the Dardennes have made has ever been nearly as warped or puzzling as Barton Fink, the same insight applies perhaps even more rigorously – the Dardennes are unique in their total mastery of dividing the essential from the non-essential, and ruthless in their culling of the latter.
Two Days, One Night interrogates with quiet but piercing grace a panoply of socioeconomic maladies afflicting Belgium and Europe: unemployment, sexism, racism, environmentalism (it’s not an accident that Sandra works at an industry burdened with the fate of the world, and one in search of power from the fundamental source of life). It taps into a broader zeitgeist of hopelessness, disaffection, and insecurity that collapses the quotidian and the devastating. And yet for all that devastating portraiture of a society mired in crisis, this is a film that is fundamentally about a crisis of the individual, a crisis of the soul. Cliche though it may be to say, Two Days, One Night roots its timeliness in the timely, a document of a moment and a myth alike. In finding hope in hopelessness and transcendence in loss, Two Days, One Night is as necessary as it is beautiful.