There’s an industrial town in southern Belgium called Seraing. It’s part of the Walloon region where the principle language is French. To the north is the area called Flanders. This is the Dutch speaking region where the language is most commonly known as Flemish. It makes sense when you realize that to the north of Belgium is Holland while France is to the south.
In the new Oscar nominated French speaking drama from Belgium, Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard plays a young, working-class wife and mother of two called Sandra who has only recently crawled her way out of public housing and off welfare. Her husband is a kitchen worker while Sandra works in a factory along with sixteen other employees. Problems seem to befall Sandra. On top of a low paying job, the young mother has only recently recovered from a bout of depression causing her to miss a certain amount of work. But at least she still has a job. Then she gets the call.
It’s Friday, the end of the work week, and Sandra has just been told that due to factory downsizing, an issue was proposed to the workers: they could chose between either receiving their annual 1,000 Euro bonus (roughly around $1290 at the current rate) or decline the extra money so that Sandra could keep her job. The majority went for the bonus. “I mustn’t cry, I mustn’t cry,” she tells herself after the call. But, of course, she does.
However, there is one avenue Sandra could pursue in order to get her job back: a secret ballot Monday morning. If throughout the course of the weekend she can convince her fellow workers to forgo their bonus, the company will reinstate her. If not, Sandra remains redundant, something that would cripple both her and her family and could potentially send her back on welfare and eventually back to public housing. A friend has the best advice. “The only way to stop crying is to fight for your job,” he tells Sandra, and that’s what she does, and she has the weekend in which to do it.
What fascinates the most in Two Days, One Night is not so much the situation or the chance to observe the plight and struggles of the working-class in another culture – there are no political points to score nor social issues to be made – but rather the ability to observe the looks on the faces of Sandra’s co-workers as she approaches each one of them, door to door, face to face, asking them to reject their bonus and vote for her in that Monday morning secret ballot to get her job back. She’s not trying to make waves, there’s no peasant revolt behind her request, no union uprising; she simply wants everything to be the way it was, though you can always question your own level of morality behind the film’s theme and ask yourself two questions: is it really okay to personally profit at the expense of someone’s loss and what would you do?
Her fellow workers listen to her blank faced. Often it’s difficult to read how they’re going to respond. Those whom you think might be sympathetic to Sandra’s plight react negatively – there’s a new patio that needs to be built; someone’s daughter needs the bonus to help pay tuition – then there’s the worker who listens then breaks down in tears stating how ashamed he was to have voted for the bonus in the first place knowing that it would come at the cost of a fellow worker.
The film’s Oscar nomination is for Cotillard in the Best Actress category and it’s easy to see why. The hand-held though never jerky camera lingers on characters and holds the shot longer than usual. It offers the luxury of observing actions and reactions in a more intimate fashion that, scene after scene, portrays the honesty behind the performance. As with fellow Oscar nominee, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, there is no grand-standing and no scene stealing hysterics in Cotillard’s performance, just the quiet subtlety of natural expression displaying the desperation of a young woman trying to change minds while not wanting to rock any boats.
Like Gary Cooper who attempted to rally a town behind him while the clock ticked, Sandra faces her own High-Noon Monday morning, and when it eventually comes, its conclusion is unexpected. Once a different proposal is presented you may find yourself asking the same question you previously asked; what would you do?
Two Days, One Night quietly illustrates the plight of ordinary, working-class people simply trying to keep their heads above water. It’s an intimate observation of power over those who need. A bone is thrown – one that should never have been tossed in the first place – and the needy scramble to reach, knowingly harming one of their own in the process. It’s a good film but it’s made even better because of one element; Marion Cotillard.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 95 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)