Monday, January 26, 2015

Movie Review: "Two Days, One Night"

We all want to believe we are generous and empathetic people, but when truly faced with someone in need, how would we react? Would we put the needs of others over our own needs and wants? This is the primary question raised by Two Days, One Night, a Belgian movie directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is a wife and mother who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. She's ready to go back to her factory job, when she learns that the factory owner has given her colleagues two choices: they can let Sandra return to work, or they will each receive a bonus of 1,000 Euros. The 16 workers vote to let Sandra go, but when it is discovered that the factory foreman intimidated several of the workers to vote against Sandra, the factory owner agrees to a new secret ballot on Monday morning, so Sandra has the weekend to shore up the majority of votes she needs.

But Sandra would rather throw in the towel than go begging her coworkers for one more chance. While she must convince everyone that she is strong enough to work and wants nothing more than to have her life together, emotionally she isn't sure she's ready, and finds herself popping Xanax like candy. Yet her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) convinces her that she is worth fighting for, and they need her salary to avoid going on the dole again.

The movie follows Sandra as she visits each of her colleagues and pleads her case. Some are sympathetic, some are hostile; some make excuses, and some feel that they're entitled to a financial windfall even if it means financial disaster for her and her family. She faces friendliness and violence, experiences happiness and despair, and many times she is convinced she should just give up and let the chips fall where they may. And at one point her will is utterly tested, and she must decide how, or whether, to keep going.

In a number of her English-speaking roles, such as The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, Cotillard displays a steely calm mixed with a bit of barely controlled mania. But in this film, she is more vulnerability than toughness, her sad eyes telegraphing her pain, her fear, and her shame at having to put her colleagues—and herself—through this. She wants to get her life back together again, but she doesn't know if it's worth all the effort.

While I thought the questions the movie raises were intriguing, I found the movie itself kind of flat. Basically, Sandra goes from person to person, asking for their support—sometimes the person is home, and they have virtually the same dialogue she had with the previous person, and other times the person is not home, and their family member/neighbor directs Sandra to find them somewhere else. It's like the cinematic equivalent of Paul McCartney's Let 'Em In—essentially watching Cotillard knock on people's doors or ring their doorbells, and wait for someone to answer.

Cotillard and Rongione give strong performances, but I felt that the movie left more questions than answers. What happened to cause Sandra's condition? Why isn't Sandra willing to get Manu involved in helping make the case to her colleagues? And does she really want to work with people who are willing to throw her over for money? The movie felt incomplete, and never quite gripped me, so I didn't feel invested in Sandra's struggles. Perhaps I'm not as empathetic as I'd like to believe I am, or something got lost in the translation to English.

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