Unemployment in Belgium is a much more prevalent issue than it is here in the United Kingdom. Levels regularly exceed the 10% mark which would horrify most of us Britons. Therefore the Dardenne Brothers have been very savvy in creating a social epic centred on an issue that is at the heart of Belgian society. Even though a lot of emphasis is placed on the character study of its female lead, the situation lends the film much natural empathy gravity and is able to successfully arouse such central and vital questions.
Marion Cotillard, arguably one of France’s greatest actresses, plays Sandra, a married mother of two who has returned to work after a bout of depression. Unfortunately she finds her job at the solar panel factory in jeopardy after a ballot is cast by her colleagues over whether to keep Sandra on the wage bill or lose their end of year bonus. Sandra therefore has one weekend to persuade her colleagues to vote for her to keep her job before a second ballot is given on the Monday morning.
Having only sixteen colleagues to visit the film is tightly regimented; there are no twists or turns, just a fairly simple but ultimately powerful premise and some wonderfully elegant storytelling. As we countdown to the sixteenth colleague, the tension is racked up, but it doesn’t feel artificial. Our feelings are pure and we give over our complete empathy to the struggling Cotillard. That’s where the true power of the film lies. It feels so genuine and tangible – this is real life, there are no soundtracks, no explosions or car chases. The cinema should be an escapist paradise, but there is something distinctly awakening and exciting about viewing a film that brings us so down to earth.
Cotillard’s performance is beyond stunning. She conveys Sandra’s twisted agony and feelings of helplessness with tremendous versatility and subtlety. The moments of longing troubled silence hit the same emotive notes as her tearful breakdowns. In one especially poignant scene she professes to wish to be like the bird singing in the tree. However, Cotillard’s performance is the perfect juxtaposition to this image. Her hunched soldiers and desperate eyes evoke the image of a bird not free but in a cage longing to be set free from her suffering.
Her academy award performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose proved to the world that Cotillard had a great skill for giving an emotionally resonant performance of a disturbed character. I would not be surprised if, come award season, Cotillard did not equal the massive haul of silverware for Two Days, One Night as she did for La Vie en Rose.
The supporting cast features many Dardenne brother’s regulars such as Fabrizio Rongione, in the role of Cotillard’s caring, encouraging husband and Oliver Gourmet in a brief cameo as the unsympathetic antagonist Jean Marc, who attempts to dissuade the workers to vote against Sandra. All the supporting performances are solid, but Cotillard’s performance leaves such a large shadow that you just can’t take your eyes away from her.
A down to earth, fiercely humanistic portrayal of one woman’s endeavour to maintain her livelihood and sanity, the Dardenne Brothers have created a glorious example of how affecting simplicity and reality can be.