For the New York Times, A.O. Scott speaks with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, “faithful chroniclers of a European working class in crisis, [whose] austere methods have influenced filmmakers from Argentina to Kazakhstan—wherever problems of labor, subsistence and economic survival seem especially acute. Which is just about everywhere, nowadays. Since the appearance of La Promesse in 1996, the brothers have been the pre-eminent heirs of a battered and durable neorealist tradition, and they have become known—and in the world of international film festivals, celebrated—for consistency of style and theme.” Says Luc: “It may be too simple to put it this way, but all of our films recount how a person emerges from his or her solitude, and unites with another, or several others. The Son, Rosetta, La Promesse: One way or another, we show how someone encounters somebody else, and how this encounter is transformative, how it resolves the isolation that had kept the main character outside of society, outside the community.”
Slant‘s Ed Gonzalez: “These are works of socialist-humanist daring that are often underpinned by allegory, as in the brothers’ magnificent last film, The Kid with a Bike, a fairy tale of sorts that ends with a young boy’s figurative resurrection, a wake-up call to a better life. Against environs of often callous economic exploitation and repression, the down and out, through much emotional turmoil inflicted on them by society, though sometimes by their own hand, at once awaken to the truth of the world’s verities and their own social and spiritual conscience. Realism becomes transcendence and vice versa, and Two Days, One Night fits immaculately into a canon ardently devoted to etching the complexities of the continuum of our being.”
“Marion Cotillard stars as a factory worker who stands to lose her job unless a majority of her fellow employees (nine out of 16) vote to give up their bonuses in order to keep her around,” writes Scott Tobias at the Dissolve. “Already in recovery from crippling depression, she embarks on a desperate and humbling mission to plead her case to every last person. Try as they might, the Dardennes can’t quite avoid the schematic trappings of their premise, which leads to stark conclusions about capitalist society, the virtues of self-sacrifice, and basic human nature. But their heroine’s encounters with her co-workers vary widely—some tearfully pledging to help, others declining with deep regret, still more furious that she would put them in such a position—and her additional battles against her own shame and despair ratchet up the tension all the more.”
“Each encounter has the tension of a heist sequence,” agrees R. Emmet Sweeney at Movie Morlocks, “just that the stakes are much higher. Money is tight all over, and Sandra is asking these people to give up a year of gas bills. It is the rare film where bills have a physical weight, that conveys the suffocating anxiety that money problems can instill—the complete helplessness.”
For Nick Schager at the Voice, Two Days “recalls the work of [the Dardennes’] spiritual ancestor Robert Bresson in its rigorous examination of a simple moral dilemma.”
“It’s impossible to appreciate the Dardennes (or any great directors) without acknowledging their capacity for manipulation, which they have almost always managed to conceal beneath a skein of naturalism,” writes Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope. “The disguise slips a bit here, as it did in Lorna’s Silence, but the lapses are slight and more than balanced out by all of the smart storytelling choices around them, which begin with the decision to wildly mix up the staging, location, duration and immediate fallout of Sandra’s repeated one-on-one (and sometimes one-on-two-or-three) appeals. The cleverness of casting a major movie star as a woman without vanity or charisma is slightly overdetermined but mitigated by the strength of Cotillard’s acting, which, as in The Immigrant, is skilled in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself.”
“The genius of this film (to this writer, the brothers’ best) is the way that it constantly undercuts preconceptions,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies, where he also interviews the Dardennes. “Just when you feel that didacticism is creeping in, that a side is being taken or a point is being pushed, there’s a twist and we’re right back to neutral.”
“The Dardenne brothers may have outdone themselves with this heartwrenching film,” agrees the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. More from Xan Brooks (Guardian, 5/5), Dave Calhoun (Time Out, 5/5), Robbie Collin (Telegraph, 4/5), Howard Feinstein (Filmmaker), Ben Kenigsberg (AV Club, A-) and Emma Simmonds (Arts Desk). Earlier: Reviews from Cannes.
Update: At Reverse Shot, Julien Allen notes that the setup is “based on a typically barbaric piece of entfremdung (from Marx’s theory of alienation, wherein workers are deliberately pitted against each other in order to maximize value for the employer) the like of which—when described in these simple terms—would seem horrifying were it not being practiced everywhere in the developed world with impunity. What the Dardennes have done is to introduce a right of appeal. They’ve chosen to confront this socioeconomic phenomenon in the only way they know how: not with defeatism or anger but by formulating a bid for something different, for more fitting equipment to safeguard humanity’s future—compassion, solidarity, and self-sacrifice.”
Update, 10/6: “This film hit me especially hard because of a personal reason,” writes Girish Shambu: “in the last year, I have been trying to use the phenomenon of neoliberal capitalism—and its wide-ranging, calamitous impacts on society and the environment—as a master paradigm to structure some of my courses. The situations, contradictions and ironies put in place and developed by the movie speak powerfully to our present moment: this is ‘contemporary’ cinema at its most urgent and jolting. If the film was merely illustrative of neoliberalism and its effects, it wouldn’t be very interesting in aesthetic terms. But the Dardennes have designed a work crammed with detail—a lot of it open and suggestive but not conclusive.”
Update, 10/8: Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn talks with the Dardennes.
Update, 10/9: Hillary Weston talks with Cotillard for BlackBook.
Update, 11/10: “A lesser pair of filmmakers might have settled for arranging the encounters on a spectrum of sympathy, from the young man who spirals into a violent rage at Sandra’s request to the one who, at the mere sight of her, breaks down crying in her arms,” writes Max Nelson for Film Comment. “Instead, Two Days, One Night has the interpretive open-endedness of a parable, the ambiguity of an ethical thought experiment, and the limpid clarity of a folk ballad.”
Update, 11/12: Writing for the Oxonian Review, James Searle argues that “the film is more subtle than the choices of title, premise, and star may suggest. Along with elements of the film’s design, they form a complex network of cultural signifiers which interrogate the audience’s judgement.”
Update, 11/18: Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films:
Cinematically, the Dardennes have always seemed close to the unvarnished, resolutely proletarian work of early Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but they’re better character students than Loach and far less untidy than Leigh. Their films often feel closer to the rigorous, unblinking portraiture of Robert Bresson and Neo-Realist studies in compressed desperation and blue-collar straits, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), except, of course, the world has changed so much since those works were made, and today’s economic turmoil is more elusive and insidious. As some have noted, Two Days, One Night is something like a thriller as we cheer on our heroine through mounting tension and twists of fate, with Jean-Marc, unseen until the “climax,” cast as the antagonist who’s carefully laid the carrot and stick on the employees. There’s even a strong echo of High Noon (1953), stripped of its gunfighter bravado, and reduced instead to a round of pleas for conscience versus self-interest; that film’s roots in the milieu of the blacklist is crucially similar to the forces the Dardennes are exploring. The film also bears the imprint of Flemish art traditions, the internationally renowned product of the Dardennes’ corner of the world: Holbein’s Hunters Home from the Hunt; Rubens, in the glimpse of Hicham’s wife as Madonna with child; and Hicham himself hefting about farm produce in echoes of a once-popular subgenre of Flemish painting. Nor are these mere aesthetic echoes, but they also are reminders of art fundamentally based in things people actually do, and a belief that in such things lie deep truths.
Update, 12/9: In the video above, Marion Cotillard, who’s so far won Best Actress awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the New York Film Critics Online, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Boston Online Film Critics Association, talks with Scott Foundas at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Updates, 12/27: Chad Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner) suggests at the Talkhouse Film that “it takes a movie like Two Days, One Night to make you truly realize how complicated and wonderful simplicity is. In fact, there may be nothing harder to capture than the complexity of simple…. Ten minutes into the screening of Two Days, One Night, the plot had seemingly identified itself and I silently thought, ‘I hope this isn’t what the whole movie is going to be.’ In the end, it is exactly what the whole movie ends up being, and it’s incredible.”
“Work, for Sandra and her fellow citizens of the Dardenne Republic, is an irreplaceable source of meaning, identity and happiness,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “Two Days, One Night is about the erosion of all of those values, and also about the waning of solidarity in the modern economy. In the past, the quality of life that workers like Sandra and Manu enjoy might have been secured through collective struggle. Now, the film suggests, it is maintained through individual competition among the workers themselves.”
“Last week, Cotillard’s performance as Sandra was cited by The Dissolve as one of the year’s very finest,” notes Mike D’Angelo. “That’s hardly surprising, not just because she’s superb, but because she’s in virtually every frame—the entire movie is told exclusively from Sandra’s perspective. At the same time, however, what makes Two Days, One Night so special is that it doesn’t feel like a character study of a specific individual, even though Cotillard makes Sandra distinct and unforgettable. Thanks to the Dardennes’ generosity of spirit and the work of a superlative (and ethnically diverse) supporting cast, its overall effect is more all-encompassing.”
“Bringing Sandra closer to the camera during her moments of emotional self-awareness (be it anguish or ecstasy) or letting her drift further away in bouts of dazed dissociation (such as when her depression gets so bad she seems to fall asleep inside herself) are methods that help establish something close to a one-to-one empathetic relationship between camera and subject,” writes Carson Lund at In Review Online. “It’s all fitting because the Dardennes are less interested in the politics and economics of their chosen scenario than they are in surveying the full spectrum of Sandra’s social existence, a spectrum that gradually starts to form a picture not of the specific assembly-line factory where she works, but rather civilization at large and all its familiar peculiarities and inconsistencies.”
Francey Russell for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “By structuring the story around a dozen or so personal interactions, the Dardennes are proposing that we cannot make sense of what Sandra is asking apart from the very specific conditions of each particular encounter, such that each time she asks a new person her question, she effectively asks a new question. There actually is no abstract moral dilemma, no general alternative between egoism and altruism. By telling this story in the form of a series, the Dardennes challenge the very idea.”
More from Sean Burns (Movie Mezzanine, A), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, A), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Christy Lemire (RogerEbert.com, 2.5/4), Michelle Orange (Voice), Lisa Rosman (Word & Film) and Farran Smith Nehme (New York Post).
The other day, we posted Jay Kuehner and Jonathan Marlow‘s interview with the Dardennes here in Keyframe. Two more: Vadim Rizov (Filmmaker) and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com). And for the Atlantic, David Sims talks with Cotillard.
Update, 12/30: “Two Days, One Night is less of a marvel than The Kid with a Bike, the Dardennes’ previous film,” finds the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane. “There they made a fable out of a predicament; it was as if documentarians had been hired to record a fairy tale. The new project is a more dogged affair. Yet the makers’ charity and sobriety are undimmed, and they have surrendered none of their purpose in electing to work, for the first time, with a star of high rank.”
Update, 1/8: “Although Two Days, One Night doesn’t speak directly to issues such as solar energy, the political economy of sunlight, and the relations between psychic states and exposure to sunshine, these issues are latently at stake throughout,” writes Tom Holert in e-flux Journal. “How much sun is needed to maintain or improve psychic and physical health? What are the repercussions on local labor politics of ripples in global energy markets? To what extent is the distribution of wealth related to the distribution of light? Questions of this order are placed in the folds of the narrative and the imagery of the film, and they haunt the western-style tale of the heroine searching among her coworkers and within herself for a reason to stay alive in the desert of the solar-industrial real.”
Update, 1/10: David Ehrlich talks with the Dardennes for the Dissolve.
Update, 1/13: The AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd interviews the Dardennes.
Update, 1/15: And another interview with the Dardennes: Bilge Ebiri for Vulture.
Update, 1/16: Calum Marsh interviews the Dardennes for Hazlitt.
Update, 1/18: Ray Pride for Newcity Film: “Jean-Pierre Dardenne has said, ‘What was important for us was to show someone excluded because she is considered weak, because she doesn’t perform well enough. The film praises this ‘non-performing’ character who finds strength and courage through the fight she conducts with her husband.’ Quietly, surely bruising, Two Days, One Night is a story from behind the headlines and beneath the figures on the financials of businesses worldwide.”
Update, 1/19: Cotillard delivers “what may be the most self-effacing, yet bravura performance of the year,” writes J. Hoberman for the New York Review of Books. “Tense and bowed down, her voice and expressions strained, Cotillard carries the weight of the story (as well as the movie) on slender, slightly hunched shoulders. Her character, who had been hospitalized for depression, is all nerves. When, in one moment of despair, Sandra cries that she feels as though she doesn’t exist and is ‘nothing at all,’ she articulates some deeper truth about workers in the ruthless new economy—what the sociologist-philosopher Pierre Bourdieu saw as the unnerving erosion of personal dignity in the absence of job security. (Indeed, according to the Dardennes, Two Days, One Night was inspired by a case study found in Bourdieu’s The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society.)”
Updates, 2/23: For Bilge Ebiri, writing for the Nashville Scene, “perhaps what’s most remarkable in the Dardennes’ approach—beyond the suspense, beyond the provocative portrait of people caught in the capitalist machine—is their humanity. We’re with Sandra throughout Two Days, One Night, but each exchange feels like another window being opened into the world…. Two Days, One Night might be the Dardennes’ masterpiece.”
“If you are a citizen of an EU country, in the middle or working class, and concerned about the state of democracy in our post-crash world, then you should be far more worried about what is going on at the European Central Bank than at the mosques in the banlieues (suburbs),” argues Charles Mudede at the Stranger. “Terrorists have nothing on bankers when it comes to making the lives of ordinary people miserable. If there’s going to be drama in your life, expect it to come from the people who have the power to hire or fire you, change interest rates, and impose policies that deflate the economy rather than a bunch of bozos who think shooting cartoonists is a military mission.”
In Film International, Christopher Sharrett agrees that, of all the Dardennes’ films, “Two Days may be of greatest importance, with its thoughtful comments on the state of capitalism and gender relations, and a carefully-observed world where humanist values barely hang on.”
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