"I should have hated it, but I didn't," he said. "But I didn't really care about it, either."
Now I'm going to write exactly that, in a lot more words (though you can stop reading now if you prefer the abridged version).
We watched it because: We care about ordinary people struggling in an economic down-turn, but mainly because of Time Out's review: 'Most importantly, the film involves us: it draws us into the debate, makes us complicit, demands that we have an opinion, and then upends that same opinion a few minutes later. It's engaging and rousing.'
Two Days, One Night: Not an ordinary film
Sandra is signed off work with depression, but before she is able to return and remind the solar panel company of her value, colleagues vote to lose her in favour of keeping their bonus. She has a weekend to convince them to vote again, and this time, for her to keep her job.
I came to this film without the background a Dardenne Bros aficionado might benefit from, though I did see and love The Kid with a Bike. I know that their forte is thoughtful but bleak social realism, depicting the marginalised through a philosophical lens that makes meaningful fables of fringe life in industrial Belgian communities. It’s not the social realism I object to, but in the case of Two Days, One Night, a wilful lack of realism in other areas.
With every word that might be considered extra cut from exchanges leaving just the barest of expression between one actor and another, it’s like the directors loomed over the cast saying: don’t smile, don’t laugh, even less expression, pull it back. Forget comedy and tragedy being bedfellows.
Each character is a wisp of a full person, and whilst I love being flattered with the task of filling in the gaps, I didn’t feel there were enough pegs around the board. The characters can be distilled to four statements repeated on a loop:
Sandra: Someone said Jean-Marc influenced the others. Dumont said there could be another vote on Monday
Manu: You can do it, Sandra.
Employees (1): I feel sorry, but I didn’t ask for this. We need my bonus for my… (house/ baby/ electricity…) What do the others say?
Employees (2): I feel sorry, but I didn’t ask for this. I’m not voting against you, I’m voting for my bonus. I earned that money!
Of course you don’t always need a lot of words to make an impact, but I struggled to understand the value of such sparse abstraction. The best part is when Sandra’s friend Timur breaks down from the guilt of having voted against her; the worst part is when Sandra, Manu and Anne sing ‘Rock music’ in the car, breaking away from the film’s rigidity in an uncomfortable manner before returning to their trajectories. When Sandra takes an overdose, a real Manu would have had a more impassioned reaction, but this Manu had to stick to his lines: "You can do it, Sandra."
I thought Marion Cotillard was artful with the material and things rumbled along in a not unpleasantly soporific way, with tiny smiles or face twitches adding much-needed respite. However, the structure and idea had so much promise for depth that I find it hard to forgive the constricted focus and lack of liveliness.
For me, this film required too much off-camera gap-filling in order to credit it with the monumental substance some reviewers have found in it. I’m a little sick of that technique since Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene wound me up.
I know that less can often be more, but sometimes less is just less, and I think that allowing the characters to have an ordinary level of personality would have made a good idea into a wonderful movie.