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NYFF: Two Days, One Night

Our NYFF coverage continues with Michael Cusumano on Belgium's "Two Days, One Night" starring Marion Cotillard 

The experience of watching the Dardenne brothers latest critically adored Cannes hit, Two Days, One Night, brings home just how conditioned we are to expect our protagonists to be active and fearless. We are not used to heroes that need to be pushed and prodded to stand up for themselves. Our heroes tend to plunge into conflict with nary a second thought. Marion Cotillard’s Sandra is not one of those characters. When Sandra awakes one morning to a phone call informing her that she has lost her job at a company that makes solar panels, her first impulse is to take it lying down. Literally. On an upswing after what we gather is a nasty struggle with depression, Sandra crawls back into bed resigned to let her sickness swallow her whole this time.

It becomes clear that management, in a move brilliant in its craven cowardice, had given Sandra’s coworkers the choice of keeping Sandra or keeping their bonuses. On top of which, whispers were spread that Sandra was going to be let go no matter what, so it’s no surprise when the vote is a lopsided 14 to 2 in favor of firing Sandra and keeping bonuses. When Sandra’s husband and friends compel her to protest the underhanded way this was carried out, her boss allows for a second vote after the weekend, comfortable in the expectation that convincing people to sacrifice their bonuses is a fool's errand.


And even if it weren’t, the potential humiliation of having to beg her coworkers to spare her is a thought less appealing than poverty. 

Yet reluctantly, gradually, stand up for herself Sandra does. Over the course of the titular days and nights, Sandra goes from coworker to coworker to plead her case in an attempt to eke out a nine-vote majority. It’s an ingenious structure for a movie, allowing the same basic situation to be rotated and examined from a variety of angles. The Dardennes sensitivity for how people behave in these situations is exquisite. Most of her coworkers are apologetic and sheepishly explain how badly they need the money. Some avoid Sandra altogether. One or two are hostile, furious that Sandra would press the issue. Nobody wants to be the one to stick his or her neck out. Everyone’s first question is how everyone else is voting.

The knock against the Dardenne brothers is that they lack visual flair, relying on the same flat approach in every film, all long takes and medium shots. There is some truth to this charge. Yet even as the Dardennes’s visuals verge on the monotonous they reward the viewer by using that simplicity of style to build an absorbing realism. When the Dardennes are on target, as they are here, one doesn’t miss the visual panache. The effect of this unadorned technique is well worth the tradeoff.  

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this time out the Dardennes have a bona fide movie star brightening up their bleak landscape. As Sandra, Cotillard marks another triumph in a career that is nothing but recently. Glammed down without making a stunt out of it, she makes us feel the weight pulling on Sandra as she more or less fights for her life. This is not a character marching around like Erin Brokovich, giving speeches and telling everyone where they can stick it. For her, simply summoning the strength to get out of bed and face the situation is a victory. There is a moment where Sandra teeters on the brink of abject surrender when a bit of luck goes unexpectedly her way and she can’t fight a smile breaking out over her face for the first time in the film. Cotillard makes the scene more moving than any canned "inspirational" moment.

Anger at the bosses for creating this poisonous situation hums quietly underneath of the movie before rising to the surface in the closing moments. The story generates genuine suspense over the outcome of the vote and it reaches a conclusion for Sandra without cheating or lapsing into schmaltz. Two Days, One Night is not Earth-shaking cinema, but it accumulates a real power as goes along, and by the film's final, perfect grace notes the Dardennes deliver a catharsis that is as well-earned as it is satisfying. B+


Two Days One Night screens Sunday Oct 5th (3 PM - Marion Cotillard will attend the Q&A) and Monday Oct 6th (9 PM). It is Belgium's Oscar Submission for this year's Foreign Film Oscar race and opens December 24th. Previous NYFF Reviews here.


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Reader Comments (21)

A career that is nothing but recently...

Michael C -- what do you mean with phrase?

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMe

He means her recent career has been filled with nothing but triumphs, which I agree wholeheartedly with. When the Academy finally decides to nominate her again, she will have fully earned a second statuette.

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

"The knock against the Dardenne brothers is that they lack visual flair, relying on the same flat approach in every film, all long takes and medium shots. There is some truth to this charge."

Boo. There is nothing flat about their style. Their sense of composition and movement is impeccable and perfectly suited to the immersive, naturalistic style of their narratives. What the hell do people want, whip pans and star wipes?

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

The problem is IF and WHEN, Joe.

She's been nomination-worthy twice already (Nine, Rust and Bone) and nothing. The first I can see why (maybe vote split between that and Public Enemies + campaign as Lead - d'oh Harvey) but the second?

Even if the year turned out great with the addition of Riva to the race plus lil' Wallis, it's still shocking to me that Naomi Watts got the nomination and this didn't. It was one of the best performances of that year.

This one may be very good (I bet it is) but it's not getting close. And I imagine it'll take something like Macbeth, with a very famous costar in a buzzy Best Pic candidate that will likely have coattails...

Fortunately, she keeps on working and sashaying with style. She's an assassin, like someone said to Alicia Florrick in this week's The Good Wife.

She's been fierce, commited and showing off at the moment. She has a 0 to 360º range and she will get to every 1º degree there is.

AH, FRENCH ACTRESSES. Cotillard, Binoche, Deneuve, what an all-star team! Bring it on, America ;)

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Michael, you give the film a B+ but your review reads like an A. What pulled you back two spaces? Was it just the lack of visual movement? I haven't seen the film, but I would think the simplicity of the camera movement would emphasize the common issue at the heart of the film. I also like that she is still beautiful, even if de-glammed but looks like so many people we pass on a day to day basis. She is just being the character through talent, not outward tricks.

I think she has a very good chance at nomination(s). Two terrific performances in the year, plus her other recent work. The studio is going to do a push for her, the film is in the mix for foreign film which gives her more visibility and she knows how to work the system.

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

It was great to see a protagonist who wasn't the typical plucky hero/heroine of the workplace drama genre (not that some of the plucky ones haven't been good too).

Jay -- Frankly, it would've been more shocking if both Riva and Cotillard had been nominated. It's rare enough for one foreign-language performance to make it, there have only been a couple of years with two.

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJan


I guess Watts was always going to get in but Cotillard seemed such a sure thing for a while... And Naomi looked so... peripheral at times. I guess Riva getting in ultimately led to her getting shut out. But Wallis... I mean... I like the performance but... COTILLARD!


October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Jay - right? i don't know how france manages it but, like Australia, they're a veritable Factory for awesome movie stars.

Michael - i actually liked some of the visual touches -- especially the way Marion tends to be separated in the frame from people she's talking to by color blocked lines (building corners, etcetera) or actual separations like fence or door. But I agree that despite being moving and superbly acted it does feel at times like a minor triumph rather than a major one. possibly because it's ambitious seem so narrow or because it's so highly specific it's not quite universal.

i'm not sure

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R



I imagine the all-star team from the USA will be composed of Streep, Moore and Chastain?
And the Australian team will bring Davis, Blanchett and Kidman?

Let the Games begin! And may the odds be ever in Our (actressexuals') favor! :)

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

I really hope it gets a limited release for early next year as I want to see this since I am a fan of the Dardenne Brothers and of Marion Cotillard.

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Breaks my heart that she's not going to get nominated once again.

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I really cannot wait to see this. One of my most anticipated of the year. The review does read like an A, and even if it's a minor triumph, that's okay. Maybe it's the next "Bicycle Theives?" Thanks for the review! And yes, Marion will get another eventually... if it's not this year, maybe MacBeth will be the one. *fingers crossed*. She definitely should've gotten in for Rust and Bone.

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterT-Bone

Henry -

It probably reads like an A review because I don't really have any significant problems with the movie. Everything it does, it does well. For me B+ means respect, quality production, emphatic recommendation. For me a grade above a B+ is for films that reaches out of the screen and stir me in some special way, While TWO DAYS had me involved it never really crosses that line that makes you go "Wow. This is a film I am going to stay with me for years"

Marion's performance, though, is a total "A"

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Thanks, Michael.

October 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Oh, wow, for me this very much was Earth-shaking cinema. From the moment that guy lost it on the soccer pitch, I was gone.

I've always very much liked without actually loving the Dardennes' work. But this movie just took my breath away and gave me the kind of feeling those Italian humanist masterpieces from the 40s/50s do. (eg. Umberto D, Bicycle Thieves).

And I totally disagree with the charge that their visual style is dull. They have an astonishing, amazingly evocative sense for movement and composition - particularly in something like The Child or The Kid with the Bike.

But even in certain sequences in Two Days, One Night, they make stunning choices, eg. the way they decide to just film Sandra in a wide-shot as she walks to the store to buy bread for the kids' sandwiches - it seems like a simple, throwaway shot, but it sets up the viewer in a particular dynamic with her at that moment which, rather than telegraphing things in close-up (which would be the standard move), turns out to be amazingly poignant in retrospect. It highlights the mundanity of the scene as well as her own defeated state of mind, and in the context of the actions that immediately follow, it really highlights something thought-provoking about how people tick.

Just because it's not traditionally beautiful lighting and cinematography it doesn't mean it's an unexciting visual style. In fact I would argue there is even more amazing beauty and energy to the visuals they create in The Kid with a Bike. It's the kind of cinematography that would be winning nominations left and right if awards voting bodies actually knew anything about visual art, or really art in general.

October 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Nathaniel, I'm so confused that you would say this film isn't universal, since the reason I loved it so much was precisely because I found it to be the most movingly universal story I've come across at the movies in years (hence my comparing it to DeSica's movies above).

The circumstances of her predicament may be specific but - maybe because of the simplicity of the storytelling - the relatability is just off the charts. Surely just about everyone can see themselves in her situation? And the stakes are off the charts.

Moreover, the subtext of her external predicament reflecting her inner battle for self-worth just adds another element of universality.

Of course, I respect your opinion but I'm just so very, very confused..

October 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I should really proof-read my posts. And also check that someone else (hi, Roark!) hasn't already made my point more succinctly.

October 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I saw this back in June at the Sydney Film Fest and it's really stayed with me. I did find it hard to watch sometimes - because I can empathise with how hard and humiliating it would be to do what she does in the movie. But I think Cotillard is fantastic in this.

On the strength of this movie, RUST AND BONE and THE IMMIGRANT, which I saw yesterday in Australia, I am starting to become a major fan of her work.

October 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Hi goran! Haha.

October 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Nathaniel - I found its themes very universal. Economic hardship, workplace politics and management assholery are not universal?

Agree with Michael that Cotillard elevates this. She is present and emotionally avilable in every scene that, as always, I couldn't look anywhere else in the frame.

October 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

Marion Cotillard shines in this movie, Oscar for her!

October 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKarl

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