Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have long written and directed quietly compelling dramas about the economic and moral struggles of people society has shortchanged. “Two Days, One Night,” in which a laid-off factory worker fights to stay employed, is their latest realist sparkler.
As do their previous movies “Rosetta” and “The Kid With a Bike,” the film contains the effective down-to-earth characters, social hardship, underlying humanity and adept storytelling. The setting is working-class Belgium. The look is handheld and naturalistic.
This time, they cast international star Marion Cotillard, who, with her open, sad-eyed face, soars.
Her character Sandra lives with her restaurant-worker husband, Manu ( Fabrizio Rongione), and their two children in a townhouse, a nice step up from public-housing life. Depressed, Sandra has been on leave from her job at a solar-panel plant. A phone call from colleague and friend Juliette (Catherine Salee) informs her that management plans to eliminate her position.
Coworkers have voted to make Sandra redundant rather than lose their 1,000-euro bonus. The layoff would financially and emotionally devastate Sandra, who pops Xanax pills and deems herself “nothing at all.”
A thriller element kicks in when a new vote is scheduled. Sandra can keep her job if, over the weekend, she can convince at least seven coworkers to change their decision.
With the supportive Manu's encouragement, Sandra visits more than a dozen employees and asks each to consider her predicament. Most express sympathy, but, citing needs ranging from their kids' education to home-improvement plans, many won't forgo their bonus. Sandra, having experienced similar hardship, doesn't beg.
The coworkers' stories add up to a moving canvas of need and decency. One man tearfully regrets having voted against Sandra and recalls how she was kind to him when he was new on the job. And Anne (Christelle Cornil), who wants to vote in Sandra's favor but whose husband forbids it, becomes Sandra's friend.
Suspense thrills and social drama don't always mix, but the Dardennes efficiently combine the tension generated by the impending neck-and-neck vote with the realities that cause people to act selfishly.
The film is a gripping thriller, an uplifting female rejuvenation story, and a humanist indictment of a social structure plagued by the loss of community support systems and old-fashioned worker solidarity. It also demonstrates how powerful realist cinema can be.
Satisfiying resolution scenes are nail-bitingly suspenseful.
Two Days, One Night
three and a half stars
Starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salee, Christelle Cornil
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes