Movie Review - Two Days, One Night (2014)
Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne are filmmaking brothers from Belgium who make very down-to-Earth, naturalistic, very realistic and simple yet emotionally powerful movies. I haven't seen all their works, but contemporary and much-in-the-present films have been their model. However, as I watched this movie, I was reminded of one of favorite science-fiction and fantasy films of all-time and that's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
In that sci-fi flick, iconic character Mr. Spock tells iconic hero Captain Kirk, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," and Kirk adds, "or the one!" It's an idea that is wrestled throughout the subsequent Star Trek films and series. Other major Hollywood movies have touched upon or danced around this idea, but it's not until this one by the Dardenne brothers that I was reminded of the idea directly.
The Dardenne brothers come up with an interesting premise. A woman has to lose her job in order to give a dozen or so workers a bonus of extra cash in their paychecks. If the woman loses her job, her family will become destitute, but her job loss is contingent on a vote by the workers themselves, so, with the urging of her husband, she decides to go to each worker one-by-one and try to convince the workers to vote for her to keep her job and give up their bonuses. Therefore, this premise is a test of that idea, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."
The one in this case is Sandra Bya, played by Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose and Rust and Bone) and the many are her co-workers at Solwal, a company based in Belgium. Throughout the film, the idea is tested if Sandra's needs outweigh the needs of her co-workers because as she goes to each co-worker, most if not all of them are in need of the money for various reasons. Yet, the over-riding issue is that Sandra has a lot more to lose.
What is great about the film and Cotillard's performance is the empathy for which Sandra begs is empathy that she reciprocates in equal if not greater measure. She's basically asking people not simply to vote for her to keep her job but also to give up money. In that, she's not unlike a politician during campaign season. This film in effect could be a metaphor for that, if not for her level of empathy being at times stifling. She doesn't want to put her co-workers in this awkward position. She also doesn't want their pity, but her husband Manu, played by Belgian actor and Dardenne-regular Fabrizio Rongione, is a kind of antagonist. Manu is a restaurant chef who urges Sandra onward.
This becomes a point of contention that pushes her already depressed state further downward. We watch as Sandra spirals, but there is a strength to her. It might be a form of desperation, but she does keep going. At first, it seems to be solely because of her husband or to save her family. Later, or at times, she seems inspired by the return of empathy that she does find.
This movie might seem repetitive and boring. Cotillard even has to say the same bit of dialogue over and over. Yet, the Dardenne brothers are able to make it very exciting and even thrilling because we don't know what the reactions of each of the co-workers will be. Cotillard as Sandra asks each co-worker for his or her vote, and we wait on the edge of our seat of what each one's response will be. The performances of each actor playing a co-worker is also so good.
In a weird way, the film also reminded me of 12 Angry Men with Cotillard as Henry Fonda, if only for a moment at the end. Instead of being stuck in a jury room, Sandra has to go around to each of the juror's houses to talk to them one by one. It culminates at the end when they all have to come together and have this very decisive vote.
What's even clever is that the Dardenne brothers find a way to turn things around and pose in a serious way the very question to Sandra that she posed to her co-workers. In that moment, we see what she would do when put in her co-workers shoes, and if she truly has the empathy that she seems to have. It's a brief but powerful moment.
This might be a spoiler, but this movie felt like the Dardenne brothers' previous film The Kid With a Bike. The protagonist in that film spent the majority of the movie chasing after something that by the end one wonders if he is happier without that something. One wonders if there are other victories than the one that seems obvious.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.
Playing in select cities
Available on DVD/VOD in April.