Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made many notable films from “La Promesse” to their Palme d’Or winners “Rosetta” and “L’Enfant,” but they had never worked with a movie star as big as Marion Cotillard until now with “Two Days, One Night.” The result is a tour de force on Cotillard’s part as she throws herself entirely into the Belgium brothers’ aesthetic, a raw neorealism foregrounding their characters’ travails.
In this case, Cotillard is Sandra, a woman who, due to clinical depression, has been on a leave of absence for months from her work at a solar panel factory in the town of Seraing in Belgium. The company, figuring out that they can do the job of seventeen with sixteen workers while she was out, have their employees vote whether to oust Sandra and get a thousand Euro bonus or keep her on and forego the bonus. Only Sandra’s three closest friends vote to keep her on. On a Friday afternoon, Sandra’s friend Juliette (Catherine Salée) convinces their boss that the foreman Jean-Marc (Dardenne-standard player Olivier Gourmet) inappropriately influenced the vote and he agrees to a re-vote by secret ballot on Monday morning. That gives Sandra the time period of the title to approach her fellow sixteen co-workers and try to convince them to vote for her.
The setup is the most contrived and gimmicky of any Dardenne film (the tactic of firing Sandra would be great for destroying morale in the work place), but the sheer force of the acting and the emotional stakes make it one of their better films. Due to her continuing depression, Sandra is ready to give up at any time and she is embarrassed and ashamed to lobby her colleagues. Only her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) is there to egg her on and push her beyond her apparent limits. Cotillard’s challenge is to make sympathetic someone who is inherently weak-willed beyond her control, and she inhabits the role totally. She is completely deglamorized and the viewer no longer sees one of the world’s most beautiful women, but a vulnerable, insecure, desperate laborer at the end of her rope. Cotillard gives the best performance of the year so far even surpassing her terrific turn in “The Immigrant.”
The situation in some ways plays out like a sporting event. With sixteen co-workers to convince, Sandra has a goal of nine and the film ticks off each “point” as she goes from door to door or phone call to phone call. The range of reactions provides the drama. Some give hope, some give despair, some refuse to even answer the door. Sandra’s plight provides an ethical and financial dilemma for those she approaches. This sometimes turns into family fights, which in turn makes Sandra feel even worse. One thousand Euros means getting by for some, a new patio for others. What are those things worth compared to Sandra’s job? What kind of system even forces this kind of choice on people, the Dardennes ask.