Film critics were virtually unanimous in praise of Deux Jours, Une Nuit by Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne after an in-competition screening at the Cannes film festival on Tuesday. And deservedly so. The moving story of a woman who needs to persuade her co-workers to give-up a 1000 euro bonus or she will lose her job is a timely reminder of how seriously the ongoing economic crisis in Europe is hitting the pockets of ordinary people.
The superb Marion Cotillard is Sandra, a young, married woman with two children, who is recovering from a bout of depression. As she is about to return to work, she learns the company has offered her colleagues a 1000 euro bonus if they vote for her to lose her job. Sandra has the weekend to persuade her fellow employees to forgo the bonus so she can stay in employment. She visits each one in turn to explain why she needs their support. Some are sympathetic, others aggressive, but most are embarrassed at having to reveal just how much they too need the money. As the ballot draws closer, a question mark hangs over whether or not she will garner the votes she needs.
This is social commentary more in line with Britain’s Ken Loach than the Belgian brothers, but it is handled by them with great elegance and sensitivity. The tension is almost unbearable each time Sandra waits on the doorstep for someone to answer the door so she can pitch her prepared speech. But there is no judgement passed on those who refuse to help. 1000 euros is not a life-changing sum, but for those who are already working two jobs or who are single parents or who have a partner out-of-work, it clearly makes the difference between paying the bills or not.
It’s a two-tier story. What the Freres Dardenne touchingly show is a young woman, not only motivated by genuine financial concerns, but also by the need to find a meaning to life following her breakdown. Her husband, in a beautifully under-played performance by Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione, knows she is on the edge of despair and refuses to let her give up. It makes for uncomfortable viewing as he forces his fragile wife to continue humiliating herself in front of her co-workers and their families Interestingly, Sandra becomes the focus of employee anger at being put in such an awkward position. Several times she explains it was a management decision to pit her job against a 1000 euro bonus, but no-one criticises the company or suggests any collective action to fight the vote. Solidarity among the workforce it would appear is dead and buried.
Both Deux Jours, Une Nuit and Cotillard are hotly tipped to take the Palme d’or and the best actress awards respectively this weekend. It would be an unprecedented third Palme for the brothers and one, well and truly, merited.
DIRECTOR’S BIO – JEAN-PIERRE & LUC DARDENNE