Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Two Days, One Night d. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (2014) Spine: #771 Blu-ray Release Date: August 25, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
The two-time-Palme-d’Or-winning Dardenne brothers have spent their filmmaking career exploring the intimate, personal struggles of individuals to have faith in their own worth in a contemporary economy that cares little for them. Somehow, they work magic, giving us an almost spiritual insight into these people, while critiquing society. Many filmmakers who take on a social cause tend to forget the inner life of the individual that is subject to harsh external realities; or, if they bring up the inner life, more often than not that inner life is uncomplicated, merely sad. In Two Days, One Night, we have a woman who must fight for her job by convincing her co-workers to vote to keep her on rather than receive a bonus, a premise that is relatively simple and heart-breaking. Yet with this relatively simple set-up, the Dardenne Brothers set in motion a journey — for the woman and her co-workers — to find some kind of grace.
Marion Cotillard, in an Oscar-nominated performance, plays Sandra Bya. When the film starts, we are dropped right into a crisis. Sandra has just learned that her boss has decided that he cannot afford to keep her on and pay everyone their bonus. Rather than make the decision himself, he put it to a vote. Sandra herself was not there and had no knowledge this was going to happen, but a manager at the company who likes to use his position to intimidate went around and told workers that if Sandra didn’t lose her job now, one of them would. Naturally, influenced by this and by money, all but two of Sandra’s co-workers voted for the bonus. One of Sandra’s friends, one who voted for her to keep her job, went to the boss and cried foul — not at the vote itself but at the unfair manner in which it was presented — so the boss has said there will be another vote on Monday. Sandra, then, has the weekend to deal with the implications of her co-workers’ vote and to try to convince them to change their vote so she can keep her job come Monday.
Before I watched the film, I knew that basic premise. Despite my faith in the Dardenne Brothers, I was a bit skeptical and wondered if this time they might have settled down and told a straightforward story about economic oppression. I was still excited, but I did not expect the transcendence that I experienced here.
Two Days, One Night economic brutality is not the point but rather a means to explore the various ways individuals cede to the brutality or fight against it, as this brutality is embodied in themselves and others around them. As Sandra, hating every minute of it, humiliated yet desperate, goes around to the people who so recently voted for her to lose her job, she must address whether she is even fit to have the job. The reason it’s her on the chopping block is because she has been absent while dealing with an excruciating battle with depression, and she still finds herself taking pills far more often than her careful, hopeful, but tired husband Manu (played by Fabrizio Rongione) thinks is safe. Perhaps she shouldn’t keep her job. Perhaps her co-workers are right to go on without her. At the very least, she can fully understand why they, often desperate in their own circumstances, need the money (a few are quick to point out that they didn’t vote for her to lose their job, they voted for a bonus). Each party in this uncomfortable conversations can look to the other and fully imagine how horrible it would be to be in the other’s shoes.
We understand too. We care for Sandra and Manu and their children, and it’s uncomfortable to pose the question: what would I do in the same circumstances. Vote for her to keep her job? Something tells me that when a bonus is on the line — a bonus that was worked for, a bonus that is needed to support one’s own family, a bonus that your boss and not you put against a fellow co-worker (who might not be able to work anyway) — it wouldn’t be that easy, though we might be mortified with guilt even after relying on our best excuses.
But that little personal exercise is reductive; this film is much more. We feel these struggles not just because the Dardennes have them speak. The performances themselves are much more sophisticated than that. Cotillard is often seen in her pink tank-top, shoulders somewhat slouched and huddled, tension in her back as she fights the reasonable impulse to quit, to quit because the job starts to feel like it isn’t worth keeping if it means showing up at these doorways as a beggar. We see it play out in her body.
We also see it play out in Manu’s face as he tries to coax his wife to keep going, to keep going because he knows they need the money, but also because he’s devastated every time she goes to bed at 7:00 because she’s tired of being awake. This struggle is important to her, and this is a fascinating portrait of a marriage that is both strong and filled with tenderness and yet on the brink of destruction.
A tremendous film, a wonderful event today as The Criterion Collection releases the film on DVD and Blu-ray.
- The supplements, which are plentiful and detailed, begin with two new interviews. In the first, lasting 51:03, the Dardenne Brothers talk at length about the development of this film, something they’d been working on for around a dozen years. I was surprised to hear they were worried about the film feeling repetitive; surprised not because it’s unreasonable (she has to repeat these scenes and her dialogue many times) but because it simply never felt repetitive to me while watching the film. The second, lasting 22:19, features Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione, recorded separately. They talk about working with the Dardennes and how they worked on their characters. These were great interviews because, kind of like the most recent release of Day for Night, I really came to care for these characters and was thrilled to hear the actors talk about their approach.
- We also get to hear the Dardenne brothers talk about more of their work as they speak in a 20:44 introduction to their 1979 documentary, When Léone M.’s Boat When Down the Meuse for the First Time, which runs 38:18 and explores a 1960 strike that “paralyzed” Belgium, showing they have always been sensitive to social and economic issues.
- We also get a tour of the film’s key locations, On Location, lasting 36:47. The Dardennes, showing that they think about everything and somehow remember everything, take us to these scenes and talk about how the film came together, sometimes with fortuitous surprises.
- Last, other than the trailer, we get To Be an I, a video essay by critic Kent Jones that goes for 8:32 and explores the concept of “cinema of hope.”
- The disc comes with a fold-out insert featuring an essay by critic Girish Shambu that looks at “neoliberalism” and how the Dardennes inject so much life and suspense into their films.