If you faced the option to take a bonus or keep a fellow employee, what would you do? That question, posed to the coworkers of Sandra (Marion Cotillard) in Two Days, One Night, instigates a long weekend of fighting for survival.
After being away from work due to depression, a still-recovering Sandra finds that her bosses have deemed her position redundant, since her 16 coworkers have picked up the slack through overtime. Those coworkers are given the choice to let Sandra return, or take a €1000 bonus. Their vote is predictable: only two people, both close to Sandra, take her side. After learning that some of her coworkers were unduly pressured by their manager, though, Sandra is urged by her husband and a sympathetic coworker to implore her boss for a second vote the following Monday. This gives Sandra one weekend to attempt to change the minds of 14 of her coworkers.
It’s a sharp premise that the film tackles in a variety of ways. Since Sandra and her family are working class, she has limited means to reach her coworkers, so she has to tightly plan out her visits over the weekend and hope they will be available. Each interaction between Sandra and a coworker goes a little differently from the others, with coworkers expressing remorse, solidarity, furor or indignation – if they see Sandra at all. Some end peacefully, while a few veer towards violence. Each coworker has their own reason for voting for the bonus, and it’s easy to see in some cases how much economic concerns are influencing a decision they regret making.
The Dardennes are known for making socially conscious films that eschew star turns, which makes Marion Cotillard an unusual choice for the brothers. It’s a smart deviation on their part, though. Cotillard is one of the best actresses working today, and among her most notable skills is her ability to convey emotions from calm to fear to rage with little more than subtle expressions on her face. The Dardennes and Cotillard don’t go for the standard tricks to deglam the beautiful star. Cotillard just nails every element of Sandra with a precision that makes it seem effortless.
As a whole, the film falls short of achieving that effortlessness. Towards the end, some melodrama is thrown into the picture, including one drastic scene for Sandra that feels resolved with too much ease. Thankfully, Cotillard’s constant presence on-screen propels the film forward in those instances, as does the presence of Sandra’s husband, played by Fabrizio Rongione with a warmth that helps buoy the character in some of the film’s darker moments.
Without spoiling the ending, I will say that it was slightly surprising, but ultimately welcome. It’s a nerve-wracking climax, since the secret ballot for the second vote keeps Sandra and the audience waiting in anticipation. The conclusion chosen just works, though, and wraps the film in a way that feels true to the film. It’s a smart, challenging conclusion that matches a smart, challenging film.