Sandra is in the midst of a predicament far beyond her control. The young Belgian wife and mother suffered a nervous breakdown that led to time away from her factory job.
She has recovered, and is prepared to return to work. But things have changed during her time off. Management found that employees were able to cover for her absence, and eventually came up with a proposal, one with great ramifications for Sandra, her family and her 16 factory co-workers: In exchange for Sandra’s dismissal, the employee will receive a bonus of 1,000 euros. If they turn down the bonus, Sandra can keep her job. Quid pro quo.
Sandra must find a way to convince her co-workers – all in need of the bonus money – to forego that extra financial help so she can remain employed and support her family. Sandra has one weekend to do so.
That is the setup for “Two Days, One Night,” the latest film from Belgian auteurs Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. It is a simple premise, really, but one anchored in the now.
Above all else, it features the finest performance of 2014, from the great Marion Cotillard. The result is a stunning, vivid, important film that ranks among the Dardennes’ best, and last year’s strongest.
With her supportive husband in tow, Sandra’s journey takes her from co-worker to co-worker, the same quest always in mind. Some are quickly on board – one breaks down in tears, remembering a time Sandra covered for his job error. Some react violently, including a hot-headed 20-something who angrily goes against his father, a co-worker in support of Sandra’s plan.
Along the way, we see that everyone is in pain over the vote, and none of the employees can truly be called cruel.
The Dardennes succeed in making Sandra’s dilemma the audience’s dilemma. We feel for her, and see the pain in her eyes. She does not want to impose upon her co-workers, nor do we want her to. But what choice does she have?
The Dardennes ask us, what choice do the co-workers have? Almost all of them have families. Some are working extra jobs to make ends meet. Others simply know the difference the money would make in their lives. What do they owe Sandra? What does she owe them?
“Put yourself in my shoes,” says one of Sandra’s co-workers. That statement captures the complexity of the situation, and it is this complexity that makes “Two Days, One Night” such a compelling journey.
“Two Days” ends in a vote, but the scenes that follow the vote are the film’s most impressive. They involve an idea that turns the tables, and to some degree, puts Sandra in control. Her decision tells us everything we need to know about who she is, and her feelings for others.
Cotillard received a Best Actress nomination, and while she is unlikely to win, it is not hyperbole to say this subtle performance towers over the other acting nominees – male or female. Cotillard skillfully underplays, avoiding the overemotional, showy theatrics that often plague such dramas.
This is her best work, and considering the actress’ résumé – her Oscar-winning role in “La Vie En Rose,” “Nine,” “Rust and Bone” and the unjustly ignored “The Immigrant” – that says a lot.
For Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the film represents another high. It is perhaps their most accessible film and stands proudly alongside such masterpieces as “La Promesse,” “Rosetta,” “L’Enfant,” and “The Kid With a Bike.”
“Two Days” takes place in Belgium, but the issues – the sins of corporate management, the ongoing struggles of blue-collar workers, the role of women in the workplace, the inherent power of solidarity – are just as vital in North America.
This simple premise involving one woman’s quest to keep her job says so much about our world. That’s a testament to the skills of the Dardennes and Cotillard, and to the power of cinema.
"Two Days, One Night"
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Olivier Gourmet
Director: Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Running time: 95 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic elements.
The Lowdown: A Belgian mother has one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. In French with subtitles.