Watching Two Days, One Night was a great antidote to having just seen X-Men: Apocalypse, a dreadful, action-packed, CGI extravaganza (see https://film-prof.com/tag/x-men-apocalypse/). To slip into my teacher mode, Two Days, One Night is a realist film. In a nutshell, that means no fancy camera moves, no background music, no quick editing, no big emotional close-ups or breathtaking epic long shots. It also means long uninterrupted takes, a great sense of space, a heavy dependence on the actors and a sense of power that tends to build slowly rather than in bursts.
I wanted to see the film because of the lead performance by Marion Cotillard, best known on this side of the Atlantic for either winning the Best Actress Award for La Vie en Rose (also known as La Môme)—only one a small handful of foreign-language winners in that category—or for playing Mal in Inception. Her performance in Two Days, One Night was again nominated for Best Actress, and won a slew of other international awards for it.
What I’d forgotten since putting it in my Netflix list was that the film was directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the modern masters of realist film (L’Enfant, The Kid with the Bike, and producers of Rust and Bone, another film that brought Cotillard great acclaim). In an age of rapid editing (even in good films like the Bourne series) and loud superhero movies, the work of the Dardenne brothers is what we point to to remind ourselves that neorealism didn’t die with Vittoria DeSica, and that when we speak of realism, we don’t just have to point to Bicycle Thief for a great example.
For most modern moviegoers, realist cinema takes some getting used to. Scenes seem to go on much longer than necessary to get a plot point across. Story isn’t the only thing that matters. Big loud events and powerful emotional scenes are scarce. But the accumulating emotional heft these films carry can often go much deeper into the mind and heart than more formalist films. Looking back to 2007, my two favorite films of that year were Ratatouille and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a devastating Romanian film that might have been the most powerful film of that year. (Yes, I agree that’s a strange combination of favorite films.) Realist films are a whole different experience for those used to our energetic, story-driven films, but the good ones are well worth the investment.
Once I settled in for a realist experience, I sat back to enjoy Cotillard. Her stellar performance here is light years away from her intense, flashy and technically brilliant Oscar-winning turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Here she plays Sandra, a just-out-of-depression factory worker who is presented with a devilish work situation: her co-workers can vote for either a much-needed bonus for each of them, or they can vote to bring Sandra back to work. She and her husband are dependent upon her salary, so she spends her weekend trying to convince her co-workers to vote in her favor. That’s it—that’s the plot. But as in most realist films, the plot really isn’t the main point, though the film builds in intensity as the characters get down to the wire. Sandra is not always likable, though always sympathetic. Cotillard inhabits the character deeply and internally. There are no star turns, and the furniture remains unchewed. Though there are significant actions, there are no “big moments.” But her underplaying and soft grace notes make the ending that much more impacting.
The many visits to co-workers give a lot of actors a moment to either make or break the film. Most visits are logical, and the reactions—both positive and negative—are played believably. There is one emotional moment that earns its feelings, but there is another one (spoiler alert) that becomes a subplot that is played too hard and results in too dramatic a life change. But they are woven together well at the end in a way that is satisfying on several levels.
Cotillard is simply one of the greats working today, and her American films simply don’t reflect her talent. Try this one, then try La Vie en Rose, and realize once more what excellent acting can look like.