Probably the best known cinematic product of the small Belgian film industry is Jean-Claude Van Damme. His films, however, are not precisely representative. For its size, Belgium puts out a surprising number of terrific art-house movies — including Man Bites Dog, Toto le Héros, Mr. Nobody, and Lucas Belvaux’s Trilogie.
The Dardenne brothers — Jean-Pierre and Luc — aren’t exactly representative either. For nearly twenty years, they’ve been writing and directing socially conscious narrative films, rigorously realistic and dealing with societal and economic issues. They do it very well; they almost never leave the Cannes Film Festival without some major prize tucked under their arms.
Their latest, Two Days, One Night, represents a departure in only one way: It has a genuine international film star, the Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard (Piaf, Inception). To cast someone like Cotillard would seem a threat to their stark realism; even dressed down and wholly inhabiting her character, she carries a lot of baggage that’s hard to ignore.
Cotillard (pictured above right) plays Sandra, a thirtysomething woman with a husband (Fabrizio Rongione) and two kids. She also works at a small company, whose business is never spelled out for us.
More accurately, she worked at a small company. As the film starts, she is awakened by a call, informing her that she is being let go … and in a particularly cruel way. She has been on sick leave for an unstated amount of time, suffering from depression. She’s all better now — or so she wants to believe — but, in her absence, the bosses discovered that they could get by with sixteen employees as well as with seventeen.
What makes it worse is that they put the decision up to a vote among her coworkers, a vote offering a choice. They can either receive an expected 1,000-euro bonus or they can let Sandra keep her job and give up the bonus. In a sense, they are charging their workers a significant sum to save her job. The vote has already happened and, unsurprisingly, Sandra lost, with just two particularly close friends on her side.
Her family needs two incomes; the alternative is moving into public housing and going on the dole. But it’s not merely a financial catastrophe — her sense of self is deeply dependent on her job. And she was already depressed.
Her husband and best friend insist that she spend the rest of the weekend visiting all the other workers to convince them to change their votes … against their own self-interest.
The rest of the movie is structured as (in a sense) a suspense film. What will the next person say? Will she manage to get nine votes?
It is, however, unlikely to satisfy fans of, say, North by Northwest or Halloween. The Dardennes began as documentarians and didn’t really change their style much when they moved into fiction. As always, they primarily use handheld cameras, often shooting in long takes. There is virtually no music (except for when the family sings along with Them doing “Gloria” on the car radio).
There’s nothing wrong with the film, but it’s very dry, as kitchen-sink realism should be. It illustrates a point about why workers need unions, but we knew that already.