After a leave of absence for her struggle with depression, Sandra returns to her workplace to find that her co-workers have been asked to vote either to keep her employed or to receive a bonus. Fourteen people elected to receive their bonus; two voted that she should stay. Initially, Sandra appears woefully resigned to accept this fate, although it would mean that her family would no longer be able to afford their mortgage payments, and would have to move into social housing. Once her close friend Juliette informs her that the voting was compromised because the employees were pressured by their supervisor to choose their bonus, the two women approach their boss and ask that their colleagues be able to re-vote in a secret ballot. He agrees to this, and Sandra is revitalized: she resolves to pay personal visits to each of her coworkers over the space of the following two days and one night, in an endeavour to convince them to switch their votes.
Deux Jours, Une Nuit is repetitive and procedural: Sandra’s pitch is made again and again with little variation, and, thankfully, no great verbal expositions about the urgency of her situation. Her pleas, though heartfelt, are modest and small. During these visits, little details are revealed that drop a tremendous amount of information about their motives and morality: Deux Jours, Une Nuit quietly and insightfully explores themes of greed, motive, workplace politics, and desperation. Some of the visits show the audience that many of the people who she works with are desperate themselves, and genuinely apologetic for the fact that they are unable to vote against an opportunity to significantly improve their financial situation; others have motives that appear questionable (one couple sees a potential raise in pay as an opportunity to install a patio in their backyard). In all of this, the Dardenne brothers remain remarkably impartial, providing very few opportunities to judge any of the characters they present.
Sandra’s road is marked by many moments of highs and lows: any time that she is able to convince a fellow employee to change their vote, her success yields somatic response – her body language becomes more confident, and flashes of joy break through her exhausted, anxious presence. When her petition is denied, she veers back towards the depression that she is still trying to recover from: she is convinced that the only people who really want her to continue working with them are the two who initially voted to keep her; anyone who plans to revise their vote is simply responding to the pity that they feel for her. As this journey progresses, Sandra learns how to become more resilient, and realizes that the most definitive precursor to her fate is the reformation of her own attitude. Furthermore, her eyes are opened to the tribulations of the people surrounding her: she sees that hers is not the only situation that appears bleak, and she becomes more perceptively sensitive and empathetic to social inequality. Ultimately, anything that she may have learned from this series of experiences is put to the test, once she is presented with a moral conundrum: she eventually finds herself in a position of power to decide the fate of someone who was able to be supportive in her own moment of weakness, and his interests at stake are in conflict with hers. It is intriguing to see if she, who sought out the mercy of others, is prepared to provide the compassion and altruism that her circumstances required of others.
Gently devastating, though never manipulative, Deux Jours, Une Nuit is earnest, thoughtful, and timely in its examination of the victims of a precarious economy. While it is characterized by a great depth of measured, intellectual observation, its great humanist empathy elevates this Dardenne brothers effort to a level of cinematic masterpiece.