“Two Days, One Night” opens with a sequence that seems to be a microcosm of the film as a whole. Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a working-class Belgian woman, wakes up on a Friday afternoon, glumly cooks a meal and answers a phone call before retreating to her restroom.
We watch her through the mirror as she swallows a pill and makes a futile effort not to weep. The complete lack of music and complex camera work previews the starkly realistic film that follows.
Sandra has taken some time off from her job at a factory as the result of a nervous breakdown. The phone call she just received was from a sympathetic coworker at the plant, informing her that during her leave of absence the 16 other employees at the plant had discovered that they could cover her shift if they each worked a few hours more during the week. In exchange, their employer has promised them each a €1,000 bonus.
The plant’s employees, Sandra included, are just barely scraping by, and the bonus is the difference between social housing and home ownership for many of them. There will be a vote in 2 1/2 days among her coworkers over whether to keep the bonus and leave Sandra jobless or to give up the extra money to allow Sandra to remain employed.
These events take place in about ten minutes, and the rest of the 95 minute film, except the last five or so minutes, follows Sandra visiting each of her coworkers and attempting to persuade them to sacrifice their bonus. They each begin similarly and end with the coworker either remorsefully explaining that they need the bonus or confiding in her that they will support her after a short conversation.
I wish I could say that each of these encounters proves to be unique, tense and engaging in a different way from the last, but that’s just not the case. This approach to documenting Sandra’s efforts leads to the film progressing at a snail’s pace through the majority of its run time. This is the film’s critical weakness. I suspect the directors’ aim was to mirror how demoralizing the entire experience must be for Sandra, but they succeeded only in boring me. I felt as though every aspect of the film would be stronger if it was half as long.
The sparse, realistic cinematography and lethargic, repetitive pace mean that each scene relies exclusively on Cotillard’s acting to carry it. Thankfully, she is more than capable of this. Cotillard’s portrayal of an individual fighting desperately against mental illness in the face of a terrifying situation, whether she’s in the grips of a panic attack or trembling with remorse after impoverished coworkers agree to give up their livelihood, is perfect.
The performances of the other actors are of variable quality, but the film remains focused singularly on Cotillard.
Overall, the film is decent at best, and the droll repetition of scenes holds the entire experience back. Cotillard’s performance is the one exception to this mediocrity. Her quiet despair carries the entire film through to its conclusion and is the only reason I didn’t regret seeing it.
The Oscar nomination she received for her performance in this otherwise passable film is well deserved. So in the end, I feel as though this is a somewhat mediocre film that happens to feature an incredible performance.