TIFF14: Two Days, One Night

Immediately after the screening of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night at the Elgin Theatre last Tuesday, a middle-aged couple behind me turned to each other and commented on how boring they found the movie to be. They didn’t like that the film had no conventional character development and no flashy technique to keep them entertained. They were completely right in their descriptions of the film, but they were completely wrong in their assessment of whether those characteristics were strengths or flaws. Two Days, One Night is slow, measured, naturalistic cinema. It’s smart and precise in its exploration of its characters, and it’s got an emotional impact that’ll sneak up on you. Essentially, it’s everything we’ve come to expect from a Dardennes film.

The film follows Sandra (Marion Cotillard) who has a weekend to convince her coworkers at a factory to vote in favour of losing their bonuses so she can retain her job. The film begins on the Friday when she discovers she’s been fired, follows her through Saturday and Sunday where she puts her case to each of her coworkers, and ends on Monday when she discovers whether she’s retained her job. It’s a simple scenario, but it’s complicated by Sandra’s depression. The simplest conversation turns into an impossible hurdle for Sandra to overcome. When a few of her coworkers explain that they desperately need money and cannot afford to turn down the bonus, Sandra returns home and wants to collapse into her bed even though it’s only noon. She downs Xanax like they’re Tic-Tacs. Alongside Melancholia, Two Days, One Night has one of the most realistic depictions of depression I’ve seen in modern cinema.

This is due in no small part to Marion Cotillard. The fearlessness of Cotillard’s performance is that, by embracing the particulars of Sandra’s depression, she’s often an insufferable character who’s very hard to like. In one scene she turns on her gentle husband (Fabrizio Rongione), believing his soft-spoken support of her is nothing more than veiled contempt. It’s characteristic of a person with depression to see their only support structures as hidden attacks. The Dardennes love redeeming protagonists through moments of crisis, and in its final moments Two Days, One Night proves itself to be another such story of redemption and grace.

A few thoughts on the Dardennes’ technique: I don’t want to call Two Days, One Night realistic even though the film certainly portrays its characters as ordinary people stuck in relatable circumstances. The Dardennes are far too stylized filmmakers for their films to be considered analogues of reality. Their tendency towards long takes and naturalistic lighting is as much a cinematic falsity as studio era soft-focus and dolly moves. But that doesn’t mean the Dardennes technique isn’t effective. It is. It draws you into the mundane world of its protagonist. The long takes allow you time to focus on the small details of Sandra’s world, like how she favours wearing the same boots every day and how she doesn’t like making eye contact with people for too long. The Dardennes are great filmmakers, so to say that their films look as if they’re just filmed bits of real life is an insult to their technical skill.

Going back to the middle-aged couple sitting behind me at the Elgin Theatre, I’d like to amend my earlier statement. They were completely right, so long as you hate films about difficult protagonists and have contempt for the daily crises that plague the working class. Essentially, if you have no patience for films that cater to the pace of their characters and not the attention spans of their audience, Two Days, One Night is not for you.

8 out of 10 (2014, Belgium/Italy/France)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Olivier Gourmet, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Catherine Salée, and Batiste Sornin.

Two Days, One Night played at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations programme.