Movie Review: Deux jours, une nuit (2014)
Watching “Deux jours, une nuit,” the new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Le gamin au velo”), I kept flashing back to my days canvassing for Greenpeace. Also Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”
Part of the problem with “Munich” was the counting game. Five Mossad agents are going after the 11 terrorists who killed Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics, and the first kill takes a while. So does the second. You think, “There are nine more of these?” There aren’t, not that way, but the anticipation of the count, how much more we have to go, weighs on you as you watch.
In “Deux jours,” Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a working girl recently suffering from depression. But she is back “en forme” as she says on the phone to a friend, only to learn that in her absence the boss decided he didn’t need all 17 workers, only 16, and so, apparently unable to fire her outright, offered his employees a Faustian bargain: Sandra could keep her job but they would all lose a €1,000 bonus. Their call. Fourteen of the 16 opt for the dough. But her friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée), claims the foreman unfairly influenced the election, and works to get another vote Monday morning. This gives Sandra the weekend to visit and talk with her coworkers; to get them on her side; to get them to give up €1,000 for her.
That’s the canvassing-for-Greenpeace thing: going door-to-door and asking for money.
It’s also the counting game: She has 14 people to visit—no, 13, she just won somebody on the phone—and you think, a la “Munich,” surely we won’t get each of these.
We do. But you know what’s interesting? It’s interesting.
Canvassing for Greenpeace
It helps that it’s Marion Cotillard doing the asking. The Dardennes try to make her look average, but ... Well, bon effort. I think their efforts backfire, to be honest. I think Cotillard looks better without much makeup, with less covering her face. At one point, Sandra is crying, telling her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), how she feels invisible, and he’s consoling her with the words husbands usually use, but all I could think was: “Plus you’re one of the most beautiful women in the world. So you’ve got that going for you.”
Cotillard acts the movie slightly hunched, as if Sandra is trying to hide from the world, which she is. She’s a fragile woman, with two kids, fighting for a blue-collar job, but she just wants to go to her room and go to sleep. Maybe forever? Plus she’s just too nice. She almost makes the case against herself during the visits: €1,000, c’mon, everyone needs that. And nothing comes of the first two.
If she doesn’t convince the third, either, it’s only because he’s already decided. His name is Timur (first-time actor Timur Magomedgadzhiev), and he’s on the futbol field, coaching, when she visits late Saturday morning and asks if he’ll vote with her. He stares at her intensely. “Of course I will,” he says. Then he breaks down crying. He remembers how she helped him out in the past. He’s felt so guilty since the day before. “I’m really glad you’re here,” he says. It’s a welcome moment—for her and for us. It’s such a release, I began to laugh. She’s now got four with nine to go.
That’s also why it’s interesting. It’s scorekeeping. It’s less, “God, we’ve still got five more to go,” and more, “Oh no, we’ve only got five more to go!”
Then there’s the variety of responses. Most are like her—seeing both sides—and some fall this way and some that. A few are vehemently for her, while a few think she’s stealing from them. One gets violent.
It’s this aspect, the variety of responses, that really reminded me of canvassing for Greenpeace. You never knew what was behind that door. Most were blasé. A few were totally glad to see you. Then there were the angry people. They made you feel like you didn’t want to go on.
Sandra feels this way most of the time. She’s the exact wrong person to be doing this: an introvert getting over depression. But off she goes. And her pitch improves. A bit. It’s not like she begins as herself, fumbling and hemming and hawing, and winds up like William Jennings Bryan; she just gets a little better.
“Little” is the optimum word here. “Deux jours, une nuit” is all small, straightforward moments. It’s this small window into these small lives. Even the big moment—the attempted suicide—happens so straightforwardly, with so little drama, that when it’s happening you hardly realize it, and when it’s revealed to others it’s not without humor.
Turning up the volume
In the end, Sandra doesn’t win. She gets eight of the 16, and that’s not a majority, so there goes her job. But the boss is impressed that she did as well as she did, so he offers her a Faustian bargain: In a few months, he’ll let go one of the contractors—a man who just voted with her—and she’ll get his job. Sandra turns him down. Because in a way she’s already won. Just the struggle to visit everyone, to do this thing, is a victory for her. “We put up a good fight,” she tells her husband on the phone. “I’m happy.” It’s a nice ending. I’m a fan of win-by-losing movies (ex.: “Casablanca”), and this is that.
Two additional things.
One—and not to be a drag—but every job is a kind of Faustian bargain. It’s competition: you vs. every other applicant for the position. That’s why people like Sandra, the empathetic ones, tend to get ground up. They don’t have the stomach for it.
The second thing is a little embarrassing. Because it’s gushy. About You-Know-Who.
There’s a moment in the movie where I felt like I fell in love all over again. Sandra and her husband are driving to visit another coworker. She’s tired, worn down, and on the radio the French version of “Needles and Pins” comes on, which Manu mutes slightly. Because? She thinks he’s worried too much about her state of mind, that he’s trying to protect her from the sad songs of the world, and she objects. And in defiance she turns up the volume. Then she smiles.
It’s not a pretty smile, necessarily. It’s not a smile to grace the cover of a magazine. But there’s a world in it. It’s self-amused. It says this: My bold defiance is silly, I know, but I’m still glad, maybe even slightly proud, that I did it. There’s such humanity there. You can see it here, in this trailer, at 58 seconds in. Just remember: I saw her first.