A distinctly unlikely premise drives Deux Jours, Une Nuit, the new film from the Dardenne brothers which premiered at Cannes today. The manager of a small company has told his staff that they can vote on whether to get a €1000 bonus or lose a colleague. It is their decision.
Not only that, once the staff have unsurprisingly voted in favour of the bonus – making the sacking look as though it was out of his hands – the manager allows an argument that the ballot was unduly influenced and lets it be retaken on Monday morning. Two days and one night later.
The idea that management would act in such a way hampers the entire film. From this unbelievable act springs everything that happens. Which is we follow Sandra (played by Marion Cotillard) as she spends two days visiting ten or so colleagues to try and persuade them to vote for her. It makes for repetitive viewing.
Most of her colleagues are in worse financial circumstances than her and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione). The need for a company to downsize and the effects on the staff could have made an interesting film, but here the topic is merely the backdrop to a woman asking for something that other people can't really give. Lots of times.
At each visit she explains who she is – as the door is almost always not answered by the person she wishes to see – and then asks her colleague to choose her over their bonus. If they are out they are usually nearby and easy to find. When they are not easy to find she bumps into them soon afterwards anyway. Some refuse her request, others say they'll think about it, but the reactions are generally – as you'd expect – I'd love to help, but I need the bonus.
We are told that Sandra suffers from depression. To prove the point we see her taking Xanax and going to bed early. She is fighting herself as much as her colleagues. But if she was depressed she wouldn't continually knock on doors, be rejected and make the suggestion that others in financial difficulties put her first. She wouldn't be putting herself first. She struggles with this, but she does it, which doesn't ring true. Neither does a possible OD which is over as soon as it happens.
These issues take away from a fine central performance by Cotillard. She shows a woman with internal issues forced to act in a way she despises, even if the whole situation isn't quite believable. Yet she is the only character the filmmakers have developed at all. Her husband exists merely as her cheerleader. We learn nothing about his life save for discovering he works in a fast food restaurant. Her colleagues are only there to say yes or no in varying degrees of vehemence.
After the manager has changed his position yet again Sandra eventually makes a decision. It purports to show her humanity and refusal to kowtow to the system, but after what she had asked of the others she couldn't really do otherwise. Deux Jours, Une Nuit could have been an interesting drama about the effects of recession on workers, but approaches the subject from a repetitious and too tangential angle.