Sandra is depressed and has a nervous breakdown, entering the hospital and taking time off from her job at a solar panel factory. While away, her boss sees that the factory can be run by 15 people instead of 16. When Sandra comes back to work, she finds that her employer has made her co-workers a deal: If they are okay with working as hard as they did while she was gone, then they have a choice: they can all have a €1,000 bonus, but only if Sandra's position is eliminated. Most of her co-workers want the money and are fine with her dismissal, so Sandra has a single weekend to try and convince each one of her co-workers to give up their bonus so she can stay employed.
Sandra is not a stereotypical heroine. She is still fragile from her breakdown, and the thought of having to go around to her co-workers and beg them for their vote is a tough one, one that puts her right back in the headspace she was in before entering the hospital. As the film progresses, she pops Xanax like candy and becomes hopeless about the situation, which makes the film hard to watch at times and Sandra not the easiest protagonist to root for—not because of her depression, but because if she is able to keep her job, she will have several co-workers that hate her for basically "stealing" their bonus. While Sandra and her family need the money, the emotional toll this will put on her will not be pretty.
Two Days, One Night is a film of simple power. There are no giant scenes of Oscar-nominated histrionics or scenery chewing. The film's central dilemma is a small one, and Marion Cotillard's performance is massive and truthful, but microscopic in detail. There is no beating at the breast or gnashing of teeth; Cotillard's work is done mostly in her wide eyes, professing a profound sadness while proving that the best performances are usually subtle ones. Her work in this is why the film is gaining as much traction in awards circles as it is.
The film consists mostly of her encounters with the men and women she works with. Some are cruel, while some are compassionate, but all of them are human and the Dardenne Brothers are masters of making small scale moral choices feel like mysteries of the human condition. Watching a co-worker physically attack Sandra over his thousand euros is shocking, but filmed so simply and without judgement that it feels inevitable.
Two Days, One Night is a morality play both slow-moving and haunting. The Dardennes deconstruct Sandra (and Cotillard in the process) and leave us questioning our own choices in the wake. The film is never an easy one to watch and left me emotionally drained during its intense final moments. But film should not always lull viewers into flashy stupors of hard bodies and explosions while sprinkling extra salt on our vat of popcorn. Some films exist just to show us little victories and even tinier defeats. While Sandra's story is not a happy one, what we can learn about ourselves could be beautiful.
Two Days, One Night
Dir. The Dardenne Brothers
Open Friday, Feb. 20