There’s a craving nowadays for the sort of film in which the drive and determination of one woman constitutes the entire story: witness the fact that there’s an entire Netflix category of “movies featuring a strong female lead.”
Deux jours, une nuit, set in a small industrial town in Belgium, delivers just such a story with exceptional, poignant simplicity, thanks largely to Marion Cotillard’s remarkably authentic central performance.
After treatment for clinical depression, Sandra returns to her job at a solar-panel factory, only to discover that her boss has conducted a mandatory open-ballot vote on whether she should be fired. Each worker has been granted a thousand-Euro bonus for voting her out. Sandra contests the ethics of the process and gets permission to hold a re-vote the following Monday morning, leaving her with just one weekend to persuade enough co-workers to reverse their self-serving decision. With a family to support, Sandra has no choice but to embark on what is, effectively, a two-day ceremony of abject humiliation.
Belgian directors Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne took a risk casting international A-lister Marion Cotillard in the lead. The brothers are renowned for choosing non-celebrity actors, an essential component of their neo-realist aesthetic. They’ve stated in interviews that they intended to “transform her body,” and they make clever use of contrast to do just that.
Cotillard is known for her sensuality and good looks, appearing regularly in Dior advertisements. Sandra, though, is just about the furthest thing from conventional, glamorous beauty. Always ready to burst into tears, addled by anti-depressents, Sandra also eschews makeup and dresses frumpily: jeans, pink tank-top, unflattering beige bra straps exposed.
Just as Sandra’s look is unembellished, the film’s mise-en-scene is also strategically simple. The soundtrack comprises just four songs, which play each time Sandra is driven from house to house by her devoted and worried husband who remains in the car as she makes her humiliating rounds vying for the sympathy of her colleagues. It’s cringeworthy and excruciating. But she does it repeatedly, because she must.
The songs act as a kind of catharsis, Sandra and her husband blasting rock-and-roll and singalong in an attempt to rise above their gloomy mission. Other than these few scenes, though, there’s no music to cue our emotions. We share Sandra’s discomfort as she faces each co-worker, but we do so in the amplification of silence.
Each home she visits is the beginning of a vignette — Sandra delivers the same humiliating pitch to each co-worker, and each of their reactions creates a compelling scene.
Like many of their male contemporaries, the Dardennes have effectively developed a melodramatic subgenre, that of ‘one woman’s struggle.’ But while, say, Von Trier and Almodovar have taken the tragic anti-heroine figure (abducted, abused, lost in masochistic excess, etc) and run with it, the Dardennes aim for something much less glossy, less provocative, and much more relatable.
Cotillard’s performance is so delicate that each facial expression conveys the heartbreaking reality underlying her desperation. Yet she also strikes a balance between abject weakness and determined strength . There’s something exhilirating about the way she doggedly scrapes away at the “acceptable” social veneer, refusing to quit even as despair drags her down.
Small wonder that, when the film premiered at Cannes, the audience applauded on its feet for fifteen minutes.
Deux jours, une nuit is currently playing at Cineplex Forum
An avid film-goer and passionate cook, Maxine Napier Macdonald received a BA from McGill University last spring.