In Two Days, One Night, Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne continue to explore their recurring theme of ordinary, working-class people on a quest that takes on larger-than-life dimensions (La Promesse, The Kid with a Bike, L’Enfant). Marion Cotillard stars as Sandra, a wife and mother recuperating from a bout of depression who learns she’s going to lose her job at a solar panel factory due to downsizing. Her co-workers were given the opportunity to decide whether to keep her on board or receive their annual bonus of 1,000 euros, and they chose the money. When she confronts her boss on a Friday afternoon and begs him not to let her go, he agrees to give her the weekend to visit her fellow employees and persuade them to reconsider their vote on Monday morning.
Thus begins a door-to-door quest by Sandra and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), in which she tries to make her case, imploring the other factory workers to retract their votes. Two Days, One Night marks the first time the Dardennes have cast a famous name in a lead role, and Cotillard makes a great fit in with their neo-realistic, no-frills style of storytelling. She conveys Sandra’s mounting desperation and courage in the face of humiliation without histrionics or actorly tics. She’s a woman on the verge of another nervous breakdown — she has just dug herself of a hole only to plunge into a deeper one — but she won’t go down without a fight, even though many of the people she visits don’t have much sympathy for her situation (“I didn’t vote against you,” says one of the co-workers she visits. “I voted for the bonus.”)
Like many of the Dardennes’ previous films, Two Days, One Night thrusts the viewer into the dilemmas faced by their characters, making their ordeal feel personal: Would you forgo a fat bonus in order to save the job of another employee you didn’t know all that well? How much loyalty do we owe to people we work with who aren’t part of our private lives? How far does our responsibility to care for the needy extend? The Dardennes are fascinated by moral and ethical dilemmas that have no clear-cut answers, no black-and-white rights and wrongs. Sandra’s co-workers need the extra cash as badly as she needs her job. Her face doesn’t register anger whenever she gets turned down. Instead, she emanates disappointment, but understanding, too.
The stress begins to take a toll on Sandra, leading her to question everything, including her marriage. “I can tell we’re going to split up,” she tells her husband. “You pity me but you don’t love me.” Cotillard, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance, plays the character as a woman hanging on by the barest of threads, her anxiety growing as the deadline approaches and a new vote will be taken. You worry what she’s capable of doing if things don’t go her way — this is a strong but damaged woman who hasn’t fully recuperated yet — and the long takes and handheld cameras the Dardennes favor amp up the aura of anxiety looming over the film.
Two Days, One Night is the story of a woman in dire straits of a specific nature. But her situation, and the reactions of those whose help she seeks, is universal. Sooner or later, we all need a helping hand in our lives. But what happens when you need to convince people to extend one?
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salee, Batiste Somin.
Writers-directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 95 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.