Belgium’s double Palme d’Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make films that on the surface are very simple. They tell tales of working people dealing with disruptions to their everyday lives, often brought on by economic hardship. It’s the relationships that tell the story: how fragile lives are, how deep the bonds of family and friendship lie, and what lengths people will go to to survive when their worlds are threatened. I love their films, it’s this simplicity that makes them so watchable.
Two Nights, One Day is the first of the brothers’ films to feature a big name star: Marion Cotillard. She plays Sandra, a factory worker who returns from leave to find out she’s been made redundant after her colleagues voted to keep their bonuses instead of her job. One of her fellow workers persuades the boss to hold the vote again, but with all but two people voting against her, there’s scant hope that the result will change. Sandra has been battling depression, hence the time off, and it takes everything she’s got not to just give up. But with the support of her husband and the knowledge of how tough things will be without her income, she straightens her shoulders and, with the promise of a second vote the following Monday, spends the weekend visiting each of her colleagues in turn to try to change their minds.
Cotillard puts in a sensitive and vulnerable performance, far from the glamorous roles we’re used to seeing her in. In fact, she spends most of the film in a sweaty vest. Her portrayal of Sandra is just broken enough, full of despair but all too aware of what will happen if she gives in. It’s a humiliating situation for all involved, and we feel that intensely. Everyone is struggling: there’s guilt, greed and shame here, but also, crucially, some flashes of human kindness. This is how real people are affected by a broken economy. This is how they react when their worlds are threatened. This is how we all react.
The real beauty of Two Nights, One Day, as with all the Dardenne’s films, is its stillness. That’s not to say there isn’t tension here, or drama – the final scenes had me holding my breath – but it’s the quiet moments that tell the real story. These are people’s lives, they’re struggling with things the way most of us do – with grit, resilience and a sense of inevitability. Shit happens: you deal with it and keep going. This is wonderful, stirring stuff.