“Too slow” is a complaint I often overhear when leaving a theatre after a film. “Nothing really happens” is another. I heard both immediately after seeing Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night. I didn’t say anything, but had I chosen to stop and drop some film geek wisdom on that total stranger, I would have pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and informed him that the film’s slow pace and deceptively simple plot actually complement an ambivalent, complicated narrative that unfolds far quicker than they realized.
One Friday evening, factory worker Sandra is informed that she is to be laid off. Her boss grants her one last chance to save her job; She is given the weekend to convince her colleagues to vote for her to remain at the factory, the catch being that in doing so they must forego their own bonuses. Faced with her family’s financial ruin and battling her clinical depression with some highly inadvisable over-medicating, Sandra spends her weekend calling on each of her co-workers, pleading for their support.
Even if viewed as a simple character study, the film is well worth the price of admission. Marion Cotillard makes it impossible to take your eyes off Sandra, even when you feel compelled to look away, as though that would somehow spare her the slightest amount of shame and humiliation.
But, as I said before, there is so much more going on. You set a pace that matches Sandra’s demeanor at the outset of the film: somnambulistic and hesitant. However, it allows us to really feel Sandra’s desperation build. Given the episodic feel to Sandra’s encounters with her co-workers, a more rapid or frenetic pacing would have made the plot feel repetitive quite quickly. Instead, there is a cushion of time in between plot points that allow the viewer to contemplate the film’s bigger questions and issues; Between Sandra and her colleagues, some in even more dire circumstances than hers, who is more deserving? What is the likelihood that Sandra keeping her job will mean someone else losing theirs? What kind of shitty boss pits his staff against each other like that?! How would I vote?
Given the heavy political concerns raised by the film, I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had gone for a more hard-hitting, crowd-stirring approach in the editing room. But this is a Dardenne Brothers film, not Les Miserables. Come Monday morning, Sandra will either get to keep her job—by now a hollow victory—or be turned out by her peers. She will not find her inner Norma Rae, and there will be no “I am Spartacus” moment right before the vote. Instead, you allow the highs and lows of the plot to gently flow into an elegant and poignant conclusion, as though you shared my need to see Sandra retain or regain at least a modicum of dignity.