Marion Cotillard in Deux jours, une nuit

The Dardennes knock it out of the park again

Deux jours, une nuit is a perfect encapsulation of why the Belgian directing team has such an insanely high batting average at Cannes.

2 jours 1 nuit
Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard
Artifice isn’t really in the Dardennes wheelhouse. Ever since breaking out with their 1996 film La promesse, the Belgian sibling directing team has been known for a very specific kind of movie: low-key, naturalistic dramas about everyday struggles shot with very little flourish and generally employing non-actors or complete unknowns.

They’re also known for having one of the strongest outputs of nearly any filmmaker on the international scene; every single one of their films in the last 20 years has won some kind of award from Cannes — except this one. Deux jours, une nuit is also an exception in their filmography in that it stars a bonafide movie star in Marion Cotillard, but it’s otherwise a perfect encapsulation of why they’ve got such an insanely high batting average.

Having just taken some time off to treat a bout of severe depression, Sandra (Cotillard) returns to her job at a solar panel plant to find that the foreman has pushed her coworkers to vote: they can either choose to get their bonus or to terminate Sandra’s position. They can’t do both. Panicked and anxious, Sandra and her husband Manu (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione) decide to appeal to Sandra’s 16 co-workers one by one in an attempt to stage a new vote and save her job.

It’s surprising how affecting the film is considering that essentially consists of 16 variations on the same scene. Sandra spends the movie travelling to and fro, delivering the same hesitating speech to each of her coworkers. It’s easy to imagine what the quirky American Sundance indie equivalent would be: impassioned speeches to a variety of character actors, stand-up comedians and other familiar faces that slowly but surely barrel towards a happy ending. Not so here – the film is naturalistic and knowingly repetitive, growing increasingly suspenseful entirely through the actions of characters and its exploration of thorny ethics. (True to form, the Dardennes use no non-diegetic music and almost exclusively hand-held cameras.)

There’s been some vague, haughty kerfuffle around the casting of Cotillard in a role that the filmmakers would’ve traditionally reserved for an unknown. While it’s true that, on paper, the casting of a glamorous movie star doesn’t make much sense in the context of the film, Cotillard positively disappears into the role of the anxious yet determined Sandra. There’s nothing of the artificial, deglammed “serious project” in her performance; she fits into this picture as easily and painlessly as any unknown.

There’s something of Italian neo-realism to the Dardennes style, both in its earthy realism and concern with social issues. Deux jours, une nuit has no heroes and no villains, just people trying to get by. While it’s easy to identify and empathize with Cotillard (which, given her natural talent, would probably happen even if she wasn’t super famous), it’s also easy to see where those who vote against her are coming from. It should be instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever had to deal with a similar situation (I count myself among the unfortunate crew); ironically, those are exactly the kind of people who wouldn’t go see a Palme d’Or-nominated film from Belgium.  The ideas at the core of Deux jours, une nuit are infinitely more relatable than those at the centre of Transformers: Age of Extinction, but only one of those is going to add a new wing to their director’s mansion. ■
Deux jours, une nuit opens at Cinema Excentris (3536 St-Laurent) and Cinéma Beaubien (2396 Beaubien E.) on Friday, Jan. 9 (in French, no subtitles) and at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Jan. 16. Watch the trailer here: