That Marion Cotillard is generating serious awards buzz for her performance in the small-scale Belgian drama Two Days, One Night is a testament to the film's quiet emotional power. From the acclaimed Dardenne brothers, who have won the Cannes Palme D'Or twice in their storied careers, Two Days, One Night follows young wife and mother Sandra, played by Cotillard, as she canvasses her 16 co-workers at a small factory in an effort to save her job.
Sandra, we gradually learn, is resurfacing from a bout of depression that saw her miss time at work, and in her absence her bosses realized they could live without her by spreading her workload out among the other employees. They thus face a cruel choice, proposed by their bosses: They can either vote to receive a 1,000 Euro bonus, or save Sandra's job and let her come back to work. After losing one vote, Sandra is permitted to make her case amid talk of management interference. Two Days, One Night follows Sandra's sometimes excruciating, sometimes heartwarming journey through town trying to convince the co-workers she barely knows to reject the money and give her another chance.
What might be dreadful melodrama in different hands is handled thoughtfully and with nuance by the Dardennes, who employ their usual spare style of filmmaking that doesn't seek to tip the emotional scales for the audience or forebodingly build to plot twists. What's unusual is Cotillard's presence—the Dardennes usually work with a stable of relatively unknown Belgian actors suited to their process, but she is an Oscar-winning, French-speaking actress. The gamble pays off beautifully, with Cotillard giving a career-best performance that has run the table at critics' awards this year.
I talked to her about the process of making the film, its take on depression, and the twisted personal value society puts on being part of the workforce.
David Sims: I was so surprised when I first heard you were in this film—the Dardennes usually use their stable of actors, so how did someone of your prominence get to be in the movie?
Marion Cotillard: I have to say, I was very surprised too when they asked me to be a part of one of their projects. As you said, they are not used to working with … I don't know exactly how to describe it, but, actors with a different experience than the actors they usually work with. Usually they work with Belgian actors, first of all, and I've experienced a lot of genres, a lot of ways of working with great directors. So I was very surprised. I had met them a year and a half before we met to talk about the project. It was on Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard's movie, part of the production was in Belgium, so I met them for three minutes, it was very brief. But I would have never thought they'd think of me for a movie. I would have said yes to anything.
Sims: Did they have you in mind? Or was it more collaborative than that?
Cotillard: No, they had written the script already, although they had changed a few things. We met, and they talked about the project, and then they sent me the script a few weeks later. I felt, first of all, that it was something I had never done, this kind of character, and that it would be an amazing journey for me. It's everything I love: hard work, exploring, and total trust.
Sims: What's the process they follow? How did you build up this character with them? It's quite a departure for you, since a lot of the films you're in are very stylized. This is very low-scale and human.
Cotillard: We rehearsed for a month, which was kind of great, because my character is supposed to know all of those people [in the ensemble]. It was good to learn a little about them and about their characters. This month of rehearsal was very important to make those relationships, and it was the time for me to discover this woman. I did something I had done once or twice before, writing the backstory of this woman, because we don't know a lot. You know that she just recovered from depression and she's going down again, you can guess that it was a hard time for her whole family. But I needed to know where it could come from.
Sims: The details of what had happened to her, that we never really learn. Did the directors tell you to do this?
Cotillard: No, I did it by myself, but I guess they knew that I would do it because I would need it. I needed some material because there are some scenes where she'll just burst into tears out of nowhere. This is not something that's easy to do, and you really need to think about something. Because I never use anything related to my personal life, I need to build the character's background for that.
Sims: The circumstances she's under, fighting for her job, are so stressful, and you're wondering the whole time whether she's just not going to be able to do it anymore. Because what she's being asked to do is so humiliating.
Cotillard: It is.
Sims: What she's doing is very human though, because all she's doing is saying, "I understand how you feel, but think about me."
Cotillard: Yeah, she calls for solidarity when she knows that they really need their bonus money.
Sims: And she could be in that position.
Cotillard: Yeah, if she was one of them, maybe she would have voted to fire a person too, because she has two kids, and if she doesn't know the person … I thought about all the dialogues that could have happened. Because the first question I had was, "What would I have done?" But then I thought the most interesting question was what she would have done. Of course, if it was a close friend, she would have stood by her friend. But if it was someone not very close, when you put family and kids in the balance with someone you don't know, the choice is easy. We live in that society where we don't live together really. But, I still think she would have been convinced.
Sims: There's that early moment in the film, after a few workers have rejected her plea, where she meets with a co-worker on a football field. And the minute he sees Sandra, he can't take it and breaks down. And you identify with that. But the success of the movie is you also identify with the workers who say, "What am I supposed to do?"
Cotillard: And she knows it.
Sims: What I love about the film, and the films of the Dardennes brothers in general, is that there's never any histrionics, it never feels fake or overly dramatic. There's no scene of everyone screaming at each other. Was that a big part of rehearsing the film?
Cotillard: The rehearsals were more a technical aspect of the work. Because it was shot in sequence, we needed to work before being on set for shooting, otherwise you lose too much time trying to figure out a 10-minute scene without stopping. It didn't stop us from changing a few things, but the base is there when you start shooting, so you can really focus on the acting. Which is heaven.
Sims: And you've been part of so many colossal productions like Inception or The Dark Knight Rises, and this seems to be the opposite of that. Are you seeking out smaller-scale work, or is it just the directors attracting you to this kind of project?
Cotillard: I'm attracted by a lot of things. When I was a kid, my dream was to be an actress and to be able to jump from one world to another, to disappear into roles, that people wouldn't recognize me from one movie to another. So I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to live that dream. I didn't expect to live that any bigger than I had thought. I never thought I'd have the opportunity to visit another culture.
Sims: I feel like the film is quite political, although it keeps it such a personal tale. It's very much a story of this woman surfacing from her depression, but it's also—
Cotillard: I don't know if it's a political aspect or a social aspect. It talks about solidarity, of course. It's easy to show solidarity when you know people—as I said before, when it's someone you don't know and you have your kids to feed, you don't become a bad person because you vote against someone who's sick and has been sick for a long time. It's understandable why they vote against her. But the other question, and something I was very interested in when I read the script, is how our society created this question of a human being asking themselves, "Am I useless, or useful?"
Sims: Right, "Is this even worth it? Do I have a purpose?"
Cotillard: Do I have a purpose, right. And of course you do. Otherwise you wouldn't be on Earth. I really strongly believe that if we're here, it's for a reason. But when you come to the point where you lose that reason and question your place on Earth, and as a human living in this world, and … I mean, I read about Indian tribes, or African tribes, and never did I read anything about a member of those societies questioning their place in it. Now of course, they question the place of their tribes in our world, because unfortunately we don't give a shit about them.
Sims: It's a large-scale version of what's happening in this film.
Cotillard: Right. Some people care, but it doesn't change what's happening for them. Some people care and fight, but it doesn't change anything. But anyway, in those tribes, no one questions their place. Whereas our society, which is a sick society, created this story of someone questioning her place.