Belgium’s Dardenne brothers — Jean-Pierre and Luc — make small, sometimes mournful films about average individuals caught in the gears of larger institutions.
They’ve never done anything as powerful as “Two Days, One Night,” featuring Marion Cotillard in what someday may be recalled as her greatest performance. No wonder she is up for a best-actress Oscar (she already earned one for “La Vie en Rose”).
The setup is simple.
After several months of sick leave, blue-collar worker Sandra (Cotillard) is ready to get back to her job. She, her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and their two kids can’t last much longer on one income.
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Then on the Friday before she is to resume her duties, she learns that her co-workers have voted not to bring her back. The plant’s managers have proposed dividing up Sandra’s workload — and her paycheck — among the remaining employees. It is, say the bosses, the only way the staff will get a bonus this year.
A desperate Sandra pleads for and is given a second vote so she can make her case. She has the weekend — two days and one night — to visit all 16 of her co-workers to change their minds.
The bulk of “Two Days, One Night” consists of these conversations, which are as tense, angry and sad as you’d expect.
Some of Sandra’s colleagues, especially the younger workers and a few of the spouses, are indignant that this woman has shown up to make them once again confront their consciences.
Many are experiencing the same financial crunch as Sandra and Manu, and desperately need the extra cash. Some of the bonus money has already been spent, perhaps on something nice.
A few colleagues break into tears as soon as they see her. Some won’t even open their doors.
The drama that unfolds is heart-wrenching. For one thing, we come to realize that Sandra’s illness was emotional. Imagine just recovering from a nervous breakdown — possibly a suicide attempt — and now this fundamentally shy person must beg and cajole for her economic survival.
And things are complicated by Sandra’s empathy. She instinctively puts herself in other people’s shoes: “The workers deserve their money.” On several occasions she’s ready to cave. Only Manu’s gentle but urgent pep talks get her started again.
Cotillard is transcendent here. In her transformation from paralyzed fear and anguish to action, Sandra goes through stages and changes illustrative of the human condition. Cotillard, eschewing makeup and wearing thrift-store fashions, leaves behind all traces of movie stardom. Don’t be surprised if she leaves you in tears.
The Dardennes aren’t about showy technique. Inheritors of the post-war Italian neo-realist tradition, they prefer to let their story and characters do all the talking. Which is fine, since the story they have conceived is plump with complexity and subtext.
For instance, there’s the irony that Sandra’s factory makes solar panels — surely an example of good-guy capitalism.
The film refuses to judge Sandra’s colleagues or their motives. Even her nemesis, a shop foreman, and the company’s president are treated not as villains but as individuals attempting to work the system to guarantee their own survival.
This may sound unbearably depressing. (A confession: When I first heard what “Two Days” was about, I didn’t know whether I wanted to put myself through it.)
Yet ultimately this life-affirming work asserts that we are more than cogs in the machine, that we are fully feeling humans capable of acts of kindness and generosity.
“Two Days, One Night” is a critique of capitalism. But by concentrating not on dogma but on the plights of individuals, the Dardennes make a case that feels valid both in terms of head and heart.
(At Cinetopia, Tivoli.)
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT’
PG-13 | Time: 1:35
In French with subtitles