IN THIS MOVIE (“Two Days, One Night”/ “Deux Jours, Une Nuit”) about the impossible choice between self-preservation and selflessness, directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne establish a brilliant premise: Sandra (a gaunt Marion Cotillard), suffering from debilitating depression, but working her way back to health, has been fired from her job. She and her husband need her income to manage their mortgage and the basic life expenses for their small family. Reluctantly, M. Dumont, the management has advised its small staff that, after a Gerry-meandered election, the necessary choice between Sandra’s salary or a bonus of €1000 has come out in favor of the bonus. Most people opted, perhaps without too much thought, for themselves. But Sandra has managed to persuade management to re-do the election, this time with secret balloting and without the veiled threats of a foreman. However, to win enough votes, Sandra must lift herself out of the stupor of her depression (with or without doses of Xanax) and, over a weekend try to persuade enough people to choose for her and vote against their personal interests.

She first must choose action over inaction (she’d much rather simply curl up into sleep) and must fight against her absolute despair…only to be able to humble herself enough to woo people away from the lure of a bonus. It’s humiliating. And even when she finds the wherewithal to summon up the strength to plead with people to choose against their self-interests, she lacks the eloquence of persuasion. In “The Secret Agent”, Conrad speaks of “the lament of poor humanity, rich in suffering and indigent in words”

Sandra is so “indigent in words” and her despair is so intense, that at times she literally cannot find the words to explain herself… without drugs. Without the words to express herself, and potentially without the job to sustain her family, Sandra’s sense of self disappears. In her eyes, she has become an invisible person, regarded merely as a threat that must be repulsed. It becomes more and more apparent that her search for the votes is more than a search for a job; it is also a search for the self-worth that employment offers; a search for visibility and for life.

As she journeys from house to house, she is confronted by others, equally desperate for any additional scrap of money. This is society on the edge, which we experience from the (intelligent) writing that allows us brief, but revealing glimpses into the lives of her fellow sufferers. Though Sandra is in every frame, this isn’t so much a movie about her, as it is about the extent to which our lives are shaped and influenced by the people around us, about our interconnectedness. Sandra may see herself as nothing more than a two dimensional threat, but her presence at the doors of her colleagues and their reactions to her predicament opens up rich dimensions of character and sharp insights into the lives they live. We are met with a kaleidoscope of very human, very real responses: fearful, protective, empathetic, resentful, helpful etc.

One common factor in all the reactions is the need people have to blend in, to go with the flow, to effectively avoid the discomfort of choosing. Every one of them asks her the same question: how many people have agreed to forego the bonus? It’s simply so much easier to vote with the majority than to have the temerity of individual conviction. But the delicate balance of those for and against her means people are forced into making an individual choice. They can’t hide behind group-think. They (and she for that matter), have to choose, no matter how difficult that is.

Cotillard never quite wins our empathy, but nevertheless she pulls off the role brilliantly. It’s a difficult role to play: she has to be passive enough to be a mirror to the angst of others and yet imbue this passivity with enough latent passion to make her final passage into life a credible one.

And it’s a profoundly credible story. Fortunately, since this is no focus-grouped Hollywood fare, the movie avoids the music-soaring triumphalism you’d expect of an Oscar-seeking star powered “vehicle”. It’s low keyed, it feels real; and it offers no glib criticism of those who would put their bonus over her job security, nor any pretense that “doing what’s right” is any route to a better future.

“Two Days, One Night” lights up what is undoubtedly the overriding crisis of our generation: the desperation to find and keep a job in a world where unemployment has become endemic. It’s not a crisis that we’re seeing much of these days in the news. ISIS, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Ukraine and Ebola have knocked this issue off the headlines.

Somewhere a banker is rejoicing



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