It is interesting to think that Marion Cotillard’s Hollywood sojourns, outside of her native France, should so closely resemble the offscreen persona. From Public Enemies to The Dark Knight Rises, the starlet has often been cast as the same elegantly glamorous figure so popular in glossy French gossip columns.
In Cotillard’s more familiar Francophone surroundings, however, the Oscar winner has excelled in blue-collar tales focusing on the quotidian struggles of the working classes. Both Rust and Bone and La Vie en Rose were hardscrabble fables, wildly different in content but undeniably similar in theme, and Cotillard — playing a double leg amputee in the former, Edith Piaf in the latter — imbued these pictures with an invigorating charge of humane naturalism. She is a truly remarkable actress.
So she proves here in the latest project from Belgian siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, filmmakers well versed in spartan and meditative portraits of the squeezed lower middle. Like Ken Loach with less it’s-grim-up-north realism, the brothers Dardennes have long practiced the art of coaxing drama from unremarkable settings. In Two Days, One Night that drama is affecting, yet low-key, as the plot delves searchingly into places of such relative insignificance that almost everyone will feel a twinge of connection to its illustration of life’s stark and ordinary practicalities.
Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman barely clambering out of the hobbling depression that has confined her to the house and jeopardised her livelihood in the process. She is just about ready to return to her job at a local solar panel factory when she suffers another setback. Given the choice by the boss to welcome her back into the fold or receive a €1000 bonus, Sandra's colleagues have opted, predictably enough, for the money.
It is an arbitrary conundrum, perhaps, but its cruelty is artfully played and prolonged to a humiliating degree when Sandra is granted a stay: a new, secret vote will occur after the weekend. All she must do is convince a majority of her co-workers to surrender their much-needed cash, securing her employment in the process. That is, of course, an easier prospect in theory and Cotillard is every bit the tortured soul bouncing unwillingly between doorsteps and doorways, peddling the same feeble plea, begging for mercy; that she is urging people to choose her wellbeing over their own is a cause of instant tension.
Even with a family to feed and a mortgage on the line, Sandra’s odyssey could prove too great a task. A morbidly depressed individual, she is barely equipped to fight this battle. With each refusal, Cotillard’s broken woman retreats further into a private morass, slinking off to her unmade bed in daylight hours full of Xanax and sorrow. In these moments relief even hovers around the edges of her weary visage. Each setback is a confirmation of her own inadequacies; this swirl of familiar miseries serve as symbols of warped comfort.
Cotillard bravely shows off the kind of layered, multifaceted characterisation with which only the greats tend to toy. She slides effortlessly between tentative highs and crippling lows, all the time masking the squall behind a choked, whispering exterior. This brilliance seems grounded in small but intimate details, where beautifully observed acts of domesticity (Sandra delicately rearranges her children’s bedroom with expert precision) sit easily beside an unheralded suicide attempt, genuinely chilling in a casual sort of way. In truth, hers is a stunning performance that will resonate long after the credits roll.
The directors exhibit no obsession with morbidity, however. The small victories are joyous indeed, blazing shafts of light in the gloom. As those who refuse her have that right — everyone is attempting to makes ends meet — so, too, does each ally act to his or her own detriment. The courage of their solidarity is underplayed, though undeniable.
In support of Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione’s revelatory display as Sandra’s husband, Manu, is the film’s second pillar. Granted less time to shine, he nevertheless remains a rock throughout, both motivator and chauffeur.
The unquestioning commitment to his wife’s betterment, in spite of her own doubts, could become repetitive in less assured hands but Rongione’s low-key devotion represents something profoundly touching. It is as truthful a portrayal of real-world masculine responsibility as anything depicted elsewhere.
Ultimately, the Dardennes’ work soars, in spite of its earthy simplicity, thanks to Cotillard’s wondrous, unmissable presence. The ending offers drama and pain in equal measure, yet Sandra embraces a noble redemption of sorts. In doing so she hints at a sea change, a reclamation of self-worth once considered lost.
An edited version of this article first appeared here.