When you’re reviewing a Dardennes film, it’s tempting to bypass the brothers’ substantial fan base and address yourself to the uninitiated. You want to plead with those who are hungry for their art to offer more than comic book heroes and young adult vampires to sample the best, rather than always the most mediocre, of what contemporary cinema has to offer.

Alternately, you long to rail against those so intimidated by subtitles that they would rather curse the darkness than bathe in one of cinema’s warmest lights.

Timur Magomedgadzhiev and Marion Cotillard in 'Two Days, One Night'

Timur Magomedgadzhiev and Marion Cotillard in 'Two Days, One Night'

Here, though, I want to avoid that temptation and address myself to those who already know and esteem the Belgian brothers who have twice won the Palme d’Or. Two Days, One Night is everything we hoped for: empathetic, compassionate, openly and yet subtly spiritual.

With each new Dardenne film, we steel ourselves for the seemingly inevitable disappointment. They can’t just keep getting better, can they? That’s not the way success is supposed to work. The greatest athlete occasionally drops a pass; the best soprano sometimes misses a note.

Yet in the last eighteen years the Dardennes have given us seven features, any one of which would be the crown jewel in most directors’ filmographies: La Promesse, Rosetta, Le Fils (The Son), Lorna’s Silence, The Kid With a Bike, and, now, Two Days, One Night.

The premise, as it is with most the Dardennes’s previous films, is deceptively simple. As the film opens, Sandra (Cotillard) has been laid off from her job with a small company that apparently makes or sells solar panels. Her co-workers have been given a choice: accept Sandra’s termination and receive an annual bonus, or let Sandra remain and forfeit 1000 euros.

They have voted 14-2 to take their bonuses, but the head supervisor agrees to allow a revote on Monday morning because of some procedural improprieties in the original tally. Sandra has two days to visit her co-workers and convince them to put her welfare above their own. At first she won’t even try, but her husband coaxes, pleads, and prods her to attempt the impossible.

Doug Cummings wrote the most lucid and informative essay on the Dardennes that I have read. In “The Brothers Dardenne: Responding to the Face of the Other,” Cummings discusses, among other things, the influence of F. W Murnau’s Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans on the Belgians. The significance of the face to face encounter, he argues, is crucial in understanding the Dardennes’s films, since it is crucial to the sociological and theological foundations of the directors’ humanism.

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Marion Cotillard in 'Two Days, One Night'

Marion Cotillard in 'Two Days, One Night'

Sandra wants to call her co-workers or simply address them before the new vote. Her husband intuits that it is important for them and her to look each other in the eye. As she does, something miraculous begins to happen. No, not every person responds favorably, but the act of looking on and at another human being is transformative. Pretense drops away and the people begin to speak honestly about their desires, their fears, and in some cases even their God.

It feels scandalous, almost profane, to talk about the Dardennes getting better, but I strongly feel that their last three films (and the last two in particular) have extended past the moment of epiphany that’s forged when the protagonist looks on the face of the “other.” And thus, they have crafted fuller, more satisfying narratives that follow the actions prompted by the transformative encounters.

The resolutions are as varied as life. There is no cock-eyed optimism nor dull, affected cynicism here. Just a curiosity about what happens when circumstances allow people the opportunity to be the best or worst incarnations of their deepest selves.

The film opens with a beeping phone interrupting Sandra’s rest. The call is placed on hold as she responds to an oven’s timer. Her car reminds Sandra that her seat belt is not fastened. It seems as though all the gadgets are conspiring to regulate and separate human interactions. Sandra knocks on one apartment door explaining that the intercom is broken. One co-worker confesses that he thinks God has told him what is the right thing to do, but the sound of his laundry alarm is the one that prompts him to action.

Even so, as Sandra pushes past the social and technological barriers that hamper communication, she herself begins to change. Initially she was depressed and angry. (“I feel like hitting them, too!”) But after one surprising early encounter, she smiles. When her husband and a co-worker turn up the music on a car radio, for a brief moment there is a glimpse of a long suppressed emotion: joy.

Marion Cotillard and Timur Magomedgadzhiev in 'Two Days, One Night'

Marion Cotillard and Timur Magomedgadzhiev in 'Two Days, One Night'

The structural narrative problem that the Dardennes’s films create is that we may be tempted to write too much of the mind of God into the plot resolution. The easy way to slip the horns of that dilemma is to end in ambiguity. But those sorts of endings too often feel like cheating—and there is nothing ambiguous about the end of Two Days, One Night. We know what has been lost and what has been gained. We know what has been saved and what has been made new. Above all, we know in our heart of hearts who chose courageously to love his or her neighbor.

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If this year has taught us anything, it is that we aren’t guaranteed a next film from anyone. Sure, in a perfect world, our story tellers would all (like Eric Rohmer or Manoel de Oliviera) work well into their nineties, and every other autumn would bring a new film from Sayles or Scorsese and two from Spielberg. Fincher, Nolan, and Scott would outlive us all.

In that perfect world, Jean-Luc Godard would live to make films in 3D and Jafar Panahi would find some way, even while under house arrest in Iran, to make us see the world around us as something other than completely devoid of hope. Richard Linklater would spend a decade or more to remind us of what it is like to be a kid, while Spike Lee and Steve McQueen would let us walk in the shoes of another, if only for two hours in the dark.

And in that perfect world, once every three years Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne would remind us that when we look upon the face of the other, the reflection we see is always our own since the image we were made in has also bound us all one to another.

Cinephiles, do we have any idea how blessed we truly are?

Caveat Spectator

Two Days, One Night did not yet have an MPAA rating when I screened it at the Toronto Film Festival. I expect it will be rated PG or PG-13. Sandra’s husband calls her foreman an “a**.” She and her husband talk about not having marital relations, but there is no sex or nudity depicted. Prescription drug use (and abuse) is depicted. One scene has a threat of domestic violence that some viewers might find troublesome.

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.

Two Days, One Night
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
Not Rated (For some thematic elements and some language.)
Directed By
Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Run Time
1 hour 35 minutes
Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée
Theatre Release
May 21, 2014 by Sundance Selects
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