It’s the film-festival equivalent of a kid in the car asking his parents, “Are we there yet?” Here, the question is: have we seen it yet, the film that'll earn the top prize?
According to many furiously tweeting critics after the Monday press screening of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, we had indeed—though others countered that the sober, actor-driven wrestling drama would be too square a choice for a jury chaired by Jane Campion. Later, some speculated that Japanese director Naomi Kawase, one of only two women in competition, was a more likely pick, given the determined lyricism and weighty themes of her Still the Water.
But the most impassioned declarations that the race for world cinema’s most coveted prize was all but over followed Tuesday’s screening of Two Days, One Night, the latest neo-realist parable from Belgian masters Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The brothers have already taken home two richly deserved Palmes, one for Rosetta in 1999 and the other for The Child in 2005. If they snag the award again this year, they will hold the record.
With the visual and narrative economy that makes Dardenne films such a pleasure to watch, no matter how dark their stories, Two Days, One Night turns on Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a factory employee who has one weekend to convince her co-workers to forgo their bonuses so she can keep her job.
Much of the movie consists of Sandra trying to persuade people, many of whom are struggling to get by, to make a sacrifice. What gives the story power beyond its portrait of a fraying European socioeconomic fabric is the protagonist’s ambivalence about fighting for her position. Though she knows she needs the paycheck—she and her supportive husband (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione) have two kids—Sandra, we learn, is emerging from a depression, and the symptoms of anxiety (she constantly pops Xanax) and indifference still have a grip on her. But making the rounds and pleading her case, first haltingly and then with increasing urgency, gradually awakens something in her. Two Days, One Night is not just about a woman defending her livelihood; it’s about someone realizing that her life has worth.
If anything, the subtext of Two Days, One Night—Sandra’s recovery—is more stirring than the movie’s tale of social hardship and solidarity. The Dardennes’ films generally revolve around practical dilemmas with ricocheting ethical ramifications, but the central premise of their new work (Sandra’s crusade to save her job) feels tidier than usual. Things aren’t helped by an opening section that leans heavily on expository dialogue and performance in an effort to clue viewers into Sandra’s quandary and fragile mental state.