Film

NYFF: The Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night Offers Piercing Ethical Drama

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This latest assured gem from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne recalls the work of their spiritual ancestor Robert Bresson in its rigorous examination of a simple moral dilemma.

In a rural French town wracked by economic tough times, Sandra (Marion Cotillard, in a tour-de-force performance) learns that, having just returned to her job at a solar panel manufacturing plant after a leave for clinical depression, she is now going to be laid off, because her sixteen co-workers have voted to fire her rather than lose their 1,000 euro bonuses. This news hits Xanax-popping Sandra hard, given that going back on the dole will take a toll on her family’s financial circumstances – not to mention that it’s a blow to her already fragile sense of self-worth. Nonetheless, Sandra fights back, convincing her bosses to hold a second, secret ballot on the issue after the weekend, and then, at the urging of her supportive husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), visiting each of her co-workers in order to ask them, face to face, to let her keep her job.

What follows is a series of encounters in which need and greed prove equally compelling reasons for people to vote in their own interest, all loomed over by the specter of capitalism’s uglier side– embodied by Sandra’s nasty supervisor Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), who’s poisoning employees against her Far from didactic, however, the Dardennes allow any social commentary to emerge naturally from Sandra’s individual story.

The tension mounts as she struggles to maintain her own sanity and self-control while pleading with people to make a not-inconsiderable sacrifice for her sake. It’s a straightforward conceit that the directors capture via their trademark, formally assured framing and long takes, their static compositions and protracted tracking shots highlighting Sandra’s emotional condition (and relationship to those she visits) with piercing clarity and directness. Again confirming the acute auteurist greatness of the Dardennes, Two Days, One Night is an ethical drama of quietly epic proportions.