AFI Fest Film Review: Two Days, One Night (★★½)

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Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne weave simple narratives with ordinary individuals at the center of melodramatic conflict. They are masters at turning day-to-day issues into grand obstacles that must be overcome if humanity is to have a chance, which is partially why they’re held in such high esteem among their international peers. Although I’m no Dardenne connoisseur, I was absolutely floored by the dramatic and emotional heights reached in The Kid with a Bike, a film so depressing and brutally unnerving in its depiction of children from broken homes that it took me a few weeks afterward to finally lift the film’s emotional weight off my shoulders. Now we have their newest kick-in-the-gut human drama, Two Days, One Night, a considerable step backwards for the sibling filmmakers, one that relies too heavily on its glamorous star to carry what is essentially a mundane, repetitive story about the evils of capitalism and the collateral damage it causes when financial ultimatums are in play. A déjà vu sensation of “been there, done that” sets in almost instantly, the avenues taken and character beats hit feeling like a trip down memory lane that you’d prefer not to revisit if nothing new can be learned.

The Dardennes peel back the curtain and show us the daily struggles of working class individuals in Belgium, in this instance a young mother named Sandra (Marion Cotillard) whose life is about to spiral out of control. Following an accident, illness or breakdown of some sort – the film never concretely specifies which seems a bit odd and cagey – Sandra returns from her brief leave of absence only to find that her job at the local factory is in jeopardy. Her colleagues are given a difficult choice: vote to lay off Sandra or revoke their annual bonus privileges. The film offers up no explanation as to why the employers would take this drastic course of action, nor are we given any insight into Sandra’s performance history. Is she detrimental to the team moving forward? What is the financial impact on the rest of her colleagues if they forgo their bonuses? These questions are never answered. Greed needs no explanation, I get that, but Two Days, One Night is so concerned with only showing one side of the story that it ends up manipulating the already converted.

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With the support of her husband (Fabio Rongione), who is conveniently falling out of love with Sandra just as she’s undergoing immense stress, Sandra has no choice but to visit every one of her coworkers and beg them to vote in her favor. Pride is chucked out the window and all that’s left is honest vulnerability. Sandra wastes no time in dispensing the financial ruin she’ll face if they vote against her, and while many are sympathetic to Sandra’s plight, you can tell committing to her cause is going to take more than a few shed tears. The more petition trips Sandra makes, the more disgusted you feel by the entire situation. Instead of making a firm decision themselves, the factory bosses have cruelly pitted worker against worker, violating trust and tearing apart a community in the process. People who once were Sandra’s friends now put money before loyalty, a true testament to the priorities in an individual-based society that are both inescapable and reprehensible.

Marion Cotillard, yet again playing another downtrodden victim of societal mercilessness, does the job just fine but never adds that extra nuance that would elevate her character’s complexity, or in this case lack thereof. I sympathize with blind faith when it comes to working with the most prestigious of filmmakers, but sometimes a script can limit the degrees a performance can reach. Cotillard complacently colors inside the lines, leading to a performance that – while serviceable to the material – comes off predictable and uninspired. On the plus side, her lackluster performance in this film makes me appreciate her gut-wrenching work in James Gray’s magnificent The Immigrant that much more.

Is this the Dardennes Bros. first dud? I'd argue so.
Is this the Dardenne Bros. first dud? I’d argue so.

Two Days, One Night isn’t a bad film whatsoever, but its monotonous pacing and bland craft execution dilutes the resonating power you’d expect a Dardenne film to have leaving the theater. Bleak though it may be, there was no heavy sadness or feelings of outright horror upon exit. The soapy twists and thankless ending nearly make the entire journey seem somewhat of a waste. The messages and themes derived from Two Days, One Night are necessary and powerful, but as a cinematic experience I expected the Dardennes to throw down the dramatic gauntlet with a bit more gusto and they disappointingly failed to do so. Cotillard’s involvement and the pedigree of the Dardenne name might be enough to eek this woeful tale into the “Best Foreign Language Film” category at the Oscars, but my suspicion is the branch will look elsewhere when it comes to championing the best from overseas.

The Dardenne Bros Two Days, One Night had its AFI Fest debut last night, and will have a limited U.S. run beginning December 24th, 2014. Check out the film’s trailer below!