Cinema has had a long and passionate love affair with the bleak, capricious realities of life and the dramatic possibilities contained therein.
So too with tenacious protagonists who, though beaten down by their many travails, manage to find a way forward, one that doesn’t simply involve getting by, but giddily, and arms-in-the-air joyfully, triumphing against the odds.
But what about those stories where the hero of the story doesn’t emerge victorious, or only does so by their skin of the teeth?
Not so popular you might have noticed, which is why it is very good thing that there are filmmakers like brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who embrace both life’s vicissitudes and the people who barely squeak by surviving them, their victories muted and temporary at best, their fate uncertain.
Such a person is Belgian solar panel factory worker Sandra – Marion Cotillard in one of the standout performances of the year, the way she so fully inhabits her role proof that she is one of the most gifted actors of her generation – who emerges from a stint away from work suffering from debilitating depression (which has yet to fully loosen its ferociously bleak hold on her), to find that she has lost her job in a vote by her colleagues, which pitted her continued employment against their receipt of a yearly €1,000 bonus.
Only two of the people she has worked closely with for some time have voted for her, including close friend Juliette (Catherine Salée) who, outraged at the behind-the-scenes duplicity of foreman Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet) – he has told everyone she’s gone anyway, swaying the vote towards acceptance of the bonus – convinces the factory manager M. Dumont (Baptiste Sornin) late on a Friday afternoon to hold a fresh vote on the following Monday.
This sets the clock ticking, with Sandra only having 48 hours to speak to each of her co-workers, and persuade them that she needs the ongoing pay check more than they need the bonus.
It’s a tough ask, and one Sandra, whose reserves of tenacity are at a perilously low ebb anyway – she pops Xanax like candy and retreats into despair more than she rallies for battle – recoils from until ever-supportive husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) convinces, sometimes on an hourly basis as her emotions ebb and flow, that it is worth giving a shot, worth the time and the effort, given how much is at stake for them.
But it is an exhausting undertaking, one which requires her to intrude into her co-worker’s home lives in a way that leaves her feeling gut-wrenchigly sick at times, upset that she is asking them to forgo money that they need every bit as much as she does.
Her feelings of selfish intrusiveness are only exacerbated when she is told on more than one occasion that the lack of a bonus will imperil this, that or another much-needed, or in some cases, simply desired goal.
The extraordinary amount of effort it takes Sandra to venture each time into the lions’ den of desperate persuasion is writ large on her face, as is the resignation when she is rebuffed, or the quiet joy when someone like fellow parent Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev), who feels demonstrably regretful about voting against her in the original vote, says they will change their vote come Monday morning.
It is an up hill and down dale fight of emotionally-epic proportions, the great gravity of which is only enhanced by the sheer suburban ordinariness of her surroundings, the day to day reality of peoples’ hanging-on-by-a-thread lives forming the backdrop to her David and Goliath fight for job survival.
What grounds Two Days, One Night is the fact that this is no simplistically-inspiring, flag-waving triumph against the odds, no Rocky-esque victory with upbeat soundtrack to match; rather an intense nitty-gritty fight by one person not only against an unfair set of circumstances, though that is a very real foe, but against herself.
Sandra, though she isn’t unaware of this till near the end of the film, is actually fighting for her own sense of dignity, for the reclaiming of her ability to live life on her terms, something she comes to understand at the film’s end, finally at peace with the fact that, whatever the result of the vote, she has gained far more than simply a chance to save her job.
And that is what makes this intense but utterly compelling film so richly relatable and deeply, universally human.
Life isn’t always full of great, historic victories, often there are no victories at all, but rather just-made-it moments of crossing the line where the achievement of the goal is often secondary to the sense that we have reclaimed something desperately important about ourselves.
It may not make for the kind of gripping, cheerleading cinema favoured by the more bombastic filmmakers out there, but in the hands of the Dardenne brothers and the supremely-gifted Marion Cotillard, it is storytelling of the highest order, as real and affecting as cinema gets.