Yes, the fact that all the characters in this film have some sort of financial trouble speaks to the suffocating conditions of the French working class. Yes, since it is a story about one woman’s attempt to convince sixteen of her coworkers not to take a bonus so that she can keep her job exemplifies a dehumanizing relationship between worker and management. It is all there with potent minimalism in class Dardenne fashion. But, when we go to the movies we watch a film through a certain lens of our own experiences and memories. We shape our understanding of the diagetic world to fit the perception of the real world we have constructed. As a continuous sufferer of general anxiety, much of the potency, which stuck in me like a knife at points, existed because I focused on another significant concept of this story and of other Dardenne films. “Two Days, One Night” is about anxiety. It is about depression. It is about how we react to such intense mental obfuscations as the walls of our environment quickly close in.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne do not diverge from their comfort zone; the potent minimalism is draped in a present-day context and the story revolves solely on one character but there is always a sense of the world stemming from the nuanced dialogue of the supporting players. Every single shot features Marion Cotillard’s Sandra. There are no insert shots, there are no cutaways and there are very few shot-reverse-shot structures. If structure and cinematographic style can be labelled as minimalistic, their tone and pacing create a sense of weighted urgency almost running perpendicular to the minimalism but somehow becomes a compliment. Indeed, within the first two minutes of the film Sandra is told she will be laid off because of a vote from her co-workers and she begins crying uncontrollably, thereby taking a lot of Xanax in her bathroom.
With Sandra being in virtually every shot of the film, much rides on Cotillard’s performance. It is hard for me to really express what I feel about her performance other than that I am glad that she exists. I am glad that she exists to act in a film like this. Her heavy doses of naturalism mixed in with an underpinning of restraint illustrates an individual who is scared of herself. She does not need to say anything in order for the audience to understand the doubt that strips away her soul, muddling any sense of decision-making and logic. The foreboding fear lingering literally in her throat made every phone call and every encounter one with uncertain tension. Some of the supporting characters in the film, including Manu, played with heartfelt sympathy by Fabrizio Rongione (frequent collaborator with the filmmakers), are literally just that, supporting or, rather, supportive. Without some of them, Sandra will fall into a void of helplessness and despair.
And this is where Cotillard’s monumental performance and the Dardenne brothers’ intersect in creative energy, offering an elegant take to an anxious-ridden world we our thrown into. There is a journey in the film for Sandra, one that is both physical (or spatial), and one that is psychological. This mission she is forced to take can only be done if she can control herself, and we see this unfolding as she walks along the streets with slight aimlessness of Seraing. Yet, this whole journey is a physical and visual manifestation of the conflict of that spawns in the wake of anxiety. Her trajectory through the streets, up the stairs, in slim corridors, from one person to another, means more than getting from one place to the next. Sandra’s walking and stillness represent the mental struggle ever present; walking symbolizes forward motion, mobility, and everything else is stasis, immobility, and decrepitude. Her moments of sitting or lying down or even when she isolates herself in a small room contribute to a notion that she is letting anxiety make her decisions. But it is her movement that eases her burden, and brings her to a new place within herself and without herself, so to speak. Such simplicity layered on top of an already simplistic foundation, but it serves to uproot emotions and feelings that permeate in a savage maelstrom because of its honesty and unabridged directness. To say that some points of the film were frighteningly intense would be an understatement, a product of the ease of buying into a performance so in tune with a mental disorder that effects countless people.
Lo and behold, there are not many films about anxiety, about the way in which it can mess with perception of an individual’s world. Sandra’s world seemed like a mad carnival, but the Dardenne brothers depicted this film with humanism. They have done this before, at least in the other film I have seen by them, “The Son,” in which instead of pills, the main character would sit on the ground and breath heavily for a few moments before getting back up again. We must closely watch these moments because these are conduits to how the main characters function. We must watch how they cope and how they react. And we must watch Sandra fight the good fight because, in the end, she will still be with anxiety, but it is the fight that will keep her happy, healthy, and alive. So that is how I saw “Two Days, One Night,” and that is why I found this film to be powerful and important.