If you took the bicycle out of The Bicycle Thief (1949), you might get something like the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, a film which features neither bicycles nor thieves, but which is ancestrally descended from the neo-realistic fields ploughed by De Sica, Rossellini, and early Fellini in the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s.
Akin more explicitly to De Sica’s classic is this film’s archetypical, underclass quest. The former was about an impoverished father in post WWII Italy trying episodically to recover his bicycle: he needs it for work, it’s the only way he can get a job and feed his family. The latter is similarly shaped: Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is a depressed, working class, Xanax-popping mother of two. Having taken time off work –we presume from a breakdown- Sandra returns to find her job in jeopardy. The other sixteen employees at her work are given an ultimatum by ballot: they can take a 1000 Euro bonus, and Sandra will be laid off; or Sandra can keep her job, and they won’t get the bonus. Her quest, and the flesh of this film, is to go around convincing the sixteen employees to change their minds over the weekend before a new ballot is taken on Monday morning, and it’s a lot like trying to find a bicycle.
Here is where the comparison ends, because Two Days, One Night lacks the emotional and ethical subtleties which made the other film so rich. Good films stand on their own merits, and condemning by comparison is uncouth, but multiple exhibits can also highlight an argument.
The Dardenne’s are deft filmmakers to be sure, and this is simple, assured filmmaking without a trace of grandiloquence. You can tell by how effortless and cinéma vérité it seems that there was a labour of effort involved. Two Days, One Night is the kind of honest, off-the-cuff, emphatic movie-making that signifies meaning. The problem is that it signifies without following through, and there is no deeper meaning. You might call it a con if it didn’t seem so well intentioned.
The irony is that it is actually very involving, in spite of its limits and narrative repetition. What substance there is comes down to Cotillard. She owns this film; she is completely believable and you don’t doubt her for a second, which is why you can invest in her and why the movie doesn’t feel banal. Of the sixteen employees she visits, trying to convince them to vote in her favour, you wish the interactions were fleshed out into more expansive dialogues, or given some further nuance to enhance the ethical dilemma.
That this doesn’t happen may be down to the realist conceit of the filmmakers, but they have done this before and done it better. Their 1999 movie Rosetta, for instance, mined a not dissimilar thematic territory of Belgian sub-dole poverty, but in a way which imperceptibly heightened tension over its course and felt richer as a result.
Meaning can be a self-perpetuating thing which occurs through minutiae, silences, expressions and spaces, as opposed to explicit iterations. But this is a movie that fails to supersede its aesthetic or inadvertently perpetuate substance. Two Days, One Night is a filmic cubic zirconia: watching it feels worthwhile, and you might mistake it for a diamond; examine it too closely and its value diminishes.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10