‘Two Days, One Night’ profoundly explores job insecurity, co-worker animosity

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“Two Days, One Night” features French actress Marion Cotillard, who is hunched, apathetic and convincingly vulnerable. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the writers and directors of the film, transform Cotillard from the beauty found in “Inception” and “The Dark Night Rises” to a dysfunctional mother, unable to keep her life together.

After taking time off work due to a debilitating bout of depression, Sandra (Cotillard) returns to discover that her co-workers have voted her out of her job at the small solar panel factory in Liege, Belgium. In her absence, management realized that the other employees could make up for her output if they picked up slightly longer shifts, thereby saving the factory money. To incentivize firing Sandra, management sets her job against the offer of a 1000 euro bonus for each employee. Her colleagues flush the idea of worker solidarity down the drain for their own personal benefits when they nearly unanimously choose their bonuses over her welfare.

In an attempt to recover her job, Sandra asks to hold another ballot to account for the negative influence of the company’s foreman and to give the employees the opportunity to vote anonymously. She spends a majority of the weekend (two days and one night, to be exact) visiting each of her co-workers in an effort to sway their vote. And that is the plot: Sandra’s conversations, or lack thereof, with her 16 colleagues. There is hardly a moment of suspense in the entire film — it is, rather, a series of apathetic approaches and the reactions that follow.

Sandra repeats her plea for alliance almost verbatim to each of the workers, making the film monotonous in its repetition and lack of storyline. This repetition, however, is exactly what makes the film different. The Dardenne brothers do not generalize Sandra’s encounters with her peers by showing only a glimpse of the conversations she has to endure. Rather, the film subjects the audience to the grueling and monotonous conversations Sandra herself must endure as she attempts to regain her position. She is a struggling mother putting her pride aside to return to work, and like her, the audience must see the same responses that she does.

Despite using the same appeal to each of her colleagues, the responses range drastically. Each conversation starts off pleasantly enough: handshakes, hellos and subtle looks of remorse. From there, however, the conversations vary from cooperation to violent affronts to weeping apologies. With each visit, Sandra — and in turn, the audience — gets a glimpse into each one of the factory workers’ lives. Some need the money as much, if not more, than Sandra does, while some are motivated by greed and a lack of compassion. Regardless of his or her circumstance, Sandra forces each co-worker to choose a side. It becomes a morality tale based on selfishness versus selflessness and, in some cases, the sacrifice of one’s own well-being for another.

Denial does not anger Sandra. She understands the plight of those who vote against her and does not wish to discomfort them by questioning their motives further. As the rejections rise, however, Sandra falls deeper and deeper into depression, mirrored by the number of Xanax pills popped as the film progresses. It is not just money set against money or Sandra’s salary against the bonuses of her co-workers — rather, the return to her job would allow Sandra to break from her depression by joining a community she was previously part of and important to.

Throughout the film, Sandra maintains hardly any agency. Her husband and friends force her to fight for her job, while her fate rests in the hands of her co-workers. At the end, however, Sandra regains a bit of power when she refuses to succumb to the skewed morals that originally stripped her of her job. Although it is a clean finish to the morality tale, the ending is all too predictable. While the Dardenne brothers successfully create an original piece in following Sandra’s plight, they do so at the expense of entertainment value.

‘Two Days, One Night’ opens in Berkeley and San Francisco on Jan. 23.

Sasha Chebil covers music. Contact her at [email protected].