Sometimes you watch a movie and you immediately know how you’re going to feel about it. There’s something about the atmosphere that it creates that just strikes you. You know exactly what the film is trying to do, and you know how you’ll react to that. I felt that way about Two Days, One Night. Right off the bat, I could tell that it was going to be far too long, painfully slow, and focused on its least interesting character.
I also knew that, for some reason, I was still going to like it.
Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)
Directors: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Release Date: January 6, 2015
I like Two Days, One Night‘s premise: While Sandra (Marion Cotillard) was on medical leave, her bosses put together a voting ballot. People could either vote for Sandra to stay on when she was feeling better, or they could keep their annual bonuses. The company can’t (well, won’t) afford to do both. Unsurprisingly, more went for the bonuses and suddenly Sandra was unemployed. But Sandra wasn’t a part of the process, and she must go to each coworker one by one and ask (beg) them to reconsider. There are 16 people. She needs nine votes.
On concept, that sounds like a really interesting way to develop a character. At the start of Two Days, One Night, we know almost nothing about Sandra other than that she’s really sad. But a lot of people would be sad in that particular situation, so that barely even counts. We don’t know why she left in the first place, what job it is that she’s lost, or how she gets along with the others at her workplace. All we know is that Marion Cotillard is a good crier, and why wouldn’t she be? She’s a great actress.
As it turns out, there’s not really anything more to Sandra than that. Sandra is boring. It was depression that took her out of work, and while that’s a totally valid reason to take some time off (she’s medicated now), she is hampered at each and every moment of the film by her depression. She wants to keep her job, but she doesn’t want to impose on others. She doesn’t want to be told “No, I need my bonus more than I need you to have a job” by people she worked with. I get these things, but these issues manifest themselves as a constant game of Sandra refusing to do anything other than pop pills and her husband saying, “Come on!” until she eventually acquiesces. That’s boring.
And so is hearing Sandra explain why she has shown up unannounced on a colleague’s doorstep over and over again. It’s an issue of realism: Sure, most of them would not have heard of her new crusade to get her job back, but we (the audience) have heard her little introductory spiel way too many times, and it doesn’t change. Nearly every single interaction starts the same way:
– Sandra shows up at their house but the person is not there
– She goes to wherever they are (usually pointed out by a spouse or child)
– She explains the ballot
– “But it’s soooo much money!”
– “But it’s my job!”
Over and over and over again. It’s maddening, really.
So you’d think I didn’t like Two Days, One Night, because it’s boring and because its lead character is boring, but that’s because what makes the film interesting (and ultimately worth watching) has almost nothing to do with its lead character.
While Sandra as a character is never particularly interesting (even if the ultimate result shows something verging on character growth), the other people she interacts with are. There are only two possible responses – “I need the money, but okay” and “I need the money, so no” – but the situations that lead them to go from one answer to the other are occasionally fascinating to watch. The one-on-one interactions are by far the least interesting, because then it’s just one person begging and the other person accepting or not.
But when a third person (usually a spouse) becomes involved and it turns into a shouting match or some other intense moment, then you see what the money means to these people. Sandra needs a job, but these people have structured their lives around this 1,000 Euro annual bonus. It lets them pay their bills or get their children an education. Maybe it lets them do something cool and new for themselves where all of their other income had gone exclusively to the necessities. All of these are acceptable reasons to say no (even the latter, although it’s a bit sketchy), and all of them get used.
But seeing the way the co-worker (who usually has empathy) reacts versus the spouse (who has no love for Sandra) reveals a lot about who those people are and the fights that sometimes occur as a result are fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) glimpses into the lives of other characters. If Two Days, One Night succeeds at anything, it’s at making these other characters feel like they’re real people with actual lives. It feels like Sandra is intruding on them and they’re just trying to keep on living. And because of that, I kept watching. Would they stick to their guns? Would they crack under pressure? Those questions propelled the narrative forward far more than the overarching “Would Sandra get to keep her job?” Because the film didn’t make me care about Sandra, but it did make me care about everyone else.