‘Triumph’ and ‘understatedness.’ They are two unlikely verbal bedfellows. It is sensibly rare and uncanny that a film evokes both (I am less familiar with other mediums, so if this is a common thing elsewhere, do let me know.), so when one does, it is a fine piece by my books.
In the closing shot of Deux Jours, Une Nuit, directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) walks away from the camera on a nondescript, if well maintained road. It is an unceremonious final shot, especially when compared with that of Tangerines, which I saw last week. No swelling music, soaring camera on a jib or helicopter. The last expression we see from Sandra is a delicate smile. It is certainly not a “happily ever after” ending — and Marion Cotillard does not play it as such. Her smile is not so wide as to show any teeth. She looks downward, figure looking encumbered by the bag she is carrying at her side. Nonetheless, it is made triumphant in comparison to the struggle and glumness displayed through the preceding runtime. Marion Cotillard’s face gives the film an uplifting ending without testing believability. Cinema, at its best — some finality for a particular chapter; life continues.
As suggested above, the film follows a character named Sandra who has been on leave from a job at a solar panel foundry because of depression. Her specific job is never mentioned, but with the talk of welding and fabrication, it is implied that she has a blue collar manufacturing job susceptible to economic and managerial pressure. That her specific position is never mentioned further sets her up as a representation of the modern, replaceable worker, a cheap cog in a machine.
At the start of the film, Sandra is notified by a friendly coworker, Juliette, that the employees at her company, Solwal, were forced to choose between allowing her to come back to the company or getting €1000 bonuses, That they voted for the bonuses, in part because of intimidation and prodding from the foreman, Jean-Marc. Sandra obviously reacts grimly to this news. She is still afflicted by symptoms of depression and does not appear to be ready to go back to work, but her family needs her salary and she has told her colleagues that she is ready to return. Juliette and Sandra’s husband, Manu, convinces Sandra to meet with the Solwal CEO, who decides to allow another vote because of the foreman’s tampering. Through the rest of the film, Sandra tracks down her colleagues over the course of a weekend to lobby them to vote to keep her in the coming Monday vote.
The scripting of this film was impeccable, not insulting to the cognitive faculties of its characters or the audience. It is biased toward Sandra’s cause, but is not a polemic on the evil and selfishness of all humans. Counterarguments are not shunned — Sandra frequently falters in her unconfident pitching and pleading, and members of the pro-bonus camp mostly justify their positions with simple, reasonable, and relatable defenses that are painful to argue against. (As is the case with reality though, some people are not reasonable though and some justifications sound better than others.) The writing anticipates concerns the audience may come up with by having characters cover a few angles in articulating their reluctance and unwillingness to vote to keep Sandra. Demonstrating a confluence of good direction, writing, and acting, many of the Solwal colleagues manage to exude contradiction, hypocrisy, and multifacetedness despite only getting minutes of screen time. There are not many outright caricatures.
Rather than lamenting human self-interest, the film is more an indictment against managers, executives, people in power, who force contrived and artificial decisions onto their constituents, employees, serfs. The CEO and foreman characters are the closest the film gets to caricatures and straw men. More than once, Sandra is accused of being an instigator and divider, but with his passive absence and the repeated highlighting of the false dichotomy set up by the vote, the filmmakers implicate the CEO as the wrongdoer. The notion of false dichotomies perpetuated by those in power reminded me all too much about the fractious political debates being waged in the United States and Europe.
The realistic, informed manner in which depression was portrayed was another standout aspect of this film. Sandra’s condition was consistently inconsistent throughout the film, swinging between anxious sobbing and despondent catatonia. I feel that many works of cinema do not acknowledge the inconsistent and lingering nature of mental illness. For example, in Silver Linings Playbook, whose calling card was all about its portrayal of mental illness, I recall the characters played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (forgot their characters’ names) ostensibly being symptom free past a certain point in the film. They behaved steadily and regularly through their scenes, permanently improving after clearing checkpoints in their character development with little in the way of lapses or erraticness. This is not the case in Deux Jours, Une Nuit, where Sandra was prone to lapses and impulses, her momentum easily deflated by awry remarks from her colleagues. Capably transitioning from stupor to euphoria to anxiety and then back again in single scenes, Cotillard does some admirable physical acting with remarkable postural and facial control. (See Foxcatcher for more recent examples of dedicated and attentive physical acting.)
In regards to technical aspects of the production, I do not have much to say. I was glued to the plot of the film and did not pay too much attention to the editing or cinematography, which indicates competency. I do not remember anything in particular about the editing — Walter Murch and Edward Dmytryk would be proud. In terms of cinematography, the approach was minimal and workmanlike. Natural lighting, handheld photography. No spectacular compositions or how-the-heck-did-they-do-that?! tracking shots. Unlike the case for Tangerines (which again, I still enjoyed — just truthfully a less polished film), I can recall nothing odd and distracting from the camera movement. I do remember that the camera movement moving between character’s faces to capture their expressions as they reacted to dialog was sublimely timed, particularly for the in-car sequences.
“We put up a good fight,” Sandra says in the last shot. Indeed, the film mounts an effective, but not overbearing indictment against those who force false dichotomies onto their toilers and dependents. Deux Jours, Une Nuit is a work of heartfelt and respecting empathy. Up there with Nightcrawler and Force Majeure as one of my favorite films of the year.