Two Days, One Night: movie melodrama, it ain’t
For filmmakers, mental illness has often offered up a goldmine of cinematic potential. There are endless examples of directors having field days with mania, meltdowns and despair. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion took one woman’s fast descent into madness and turned it into a remarkably surreal viewing experience. Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas followed a depressed alcoholic attempting to drink himself to death. More outrageously, there’s Marco Ferreri’s strange and bewildering La Grand Bouffe, a grotesque Seventies black comedy that followed a group of suicidal friends who join together to have group sex and eat themselves into an early grave.
Now, into the canon of films about mental illness enters Jean-Pierre and Luke Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night. Focusing on a working mother suffering from depression, it’s a different animal to the broad, dramatic or overly maudlin depiction of mental illness usually seen on film. Indeed, what’s so impressive about the film is that it’s not afraid to represent the day-to-day drudgery of living with depression. In reality, this poorly understood illness is often exhausting, dull and a bit of a nuisance. This truth doesn’t quite have the potential for big-screen drama, but the Dardennes explore it masterfully.
In the opening scene we’re introduced to Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a mother of two living in a working-class Belgian suburb. She’s sleeping on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. A pie is burning in the oven, but only when she’s coaxed out of her deep slumber by the phone ringing does she realise it has been ruined.
Sandra has recently experienced a severe bout of depression that led her to take time off from her job at a local factory. During her absence, her greedy seniors have decided they can do without her. A cruel and manipulative ultimatum was offered to her colleagues: it’s Sandra’s job or a €1,000 bonus for them all. The workers chose the latter.
After a traumatic plea to one of her bosses, Sandra is granted just one weekend to change her colleagues’ minds. Although her husband is doting and understanding, her salary is desperately needed to pay the mortgage and care for their two children. However unjust the situation, and however exhausted and exasperated she is, Sandra must somehow find the strength required to fight for what is rightfully hers.
Cotillard plays the role effortlessly, bringing to a Sandra a dignified air and teasing out the heart-breaking truth underlying the character – that is, that although Sandra is determined to get her job back, she is clearly not yet well enough to return to work. Weary and constantly on the brink of either tears or a panic attack, Sandra travels from door to door, making her humiliating pitch. Some of her colleagues are deeply sympathetic, some are simply furious that Sandra is intruding on their weekend. This gruelling process makes for a repetitive viewing experience. Yet each encounter offers a thought-provoking observation about human behaviour, and the most poignant encounters are with those who decide to vote against their bonus, showing how generosity is not restricted by circumstance.
Two Days, One Night is an astute and compassionate portrait of living with mental illness in a society that doesn’t quite understand it. The frank representation of depression and sadness is what the film excels at. If it’s a wildly intense and meaty melodrama you’re after, you’re looking in the wrong place.
Sarah Holland is a writer based in Brighton.
Watch the trailer for Two Days, One Night: